Thursday, January 28, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Clearing up Contradictions

It occurred to me that there may appear to be a contradiction between two positions I’ve previously taken:

“As for the implication that the possibility God may be proven by science in the future is a good reason to believe in Him now, well, anything is possible. It’s possible I’ll sprout wings and learn to fly. But until I do, I’m not going to jump off any tall buildings.”

Contrast this statement with my dismissal of the improbability of spontaneous abiogenesis as a good reason for rejecting a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. Might not the religious apologist also say, “Sure, anything is possible, but for life to spontaneously arise is so unlikely that I’m going to reject it until proven otherwise. If life didn’t arise spontaneously, it must have been created, which in turn implies a Creator – God. QED. ”

On the face of it, this seems to be a very good argument. But saying God created life leads to the question, “Who/what created God?” The apologist is assuming that God’s existence is more likely than spontaneous abiogenesis. Note that the hypothetical apologist in the above argument can’t say spontaneous abiogenesis is impossible, only that it is extremely improbable. While I don’t really know what the probability is that God exists (or even how to go about calculating the probability of God) I do not accept a priori that God is the more likely of the two explanations. I think that God is, in fact, the less likely option. If spontaneous abiogenesis were impossible, we would be forced to concede that there must be Creator. If it is merely improbable, it may still be more probable than an improbable deity. Still, given that we have no real numbers, I suppose we can agree to disagree.

The above argument aside, the real difference between the two statements is one of epistemology. In the first case (claiming that science may one day prove God, therefore we should now assume He exists) there is no way to distinguish between true and false beliefs. Any belief can be justified, because the chance always exists that some future discovery will show it to be correct. This is not about the probability of a premise being proven true. It is assuming the premise is true because it isn’t impossible that it will be proven true at some point in the future.

In the second case (claiming that the small probability of spontaneous abiogenesis is not in itself a refutation) I am not assuming that because it’s possible, it’s true. I’m merely saying that it’s improbability isn’t in itself proof that it’s false.

In the first case, the apologist is saying, “We have no scientific reason to say this is true, but we may in the future, so accept it as true right now.” In the second case, I’m saying, “We think that this is what happened, we have some evidence that it’s possible, and while it may be improbable it is the best explanation for the facts.”

(I also went on to show that it’s not nearly as improbable as it was made out to be, but that’s beside the point.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Live and Let Live

Every now and then I get into theological debates with friends or family members. It never really goes anywhere, and I never push things past a certain point (which differs depending on whom I’m talking to), but it’s made me think. Do I really want to convince any of these people that I’m right?

I’ve decided the answer is no. I don’t see that “deconverting” the people in my life would be a good thing. It almost certainly wouldn’t make them any happier, and for many of them convincing them that their religious beliefs are wrong would be devastating. So why argue with them? The truth is that I argue mostly because it’s fun or because I found something someone said annoying. But if I were to give my debates a deeper meaning, they’re an attempt to get these people to acknowledge that I might be right.

Religious people are convinced that they are absolutely right and anyone who disagrees with the tenets of their religion is absolutely wrong. While I have no interest in convincing anyone that they should abandon their religion, I would like to convince them that maybe it isn’t such a sure thing. I’d like them to acknowledge the possibility that their beliefs are mistaken than that there are good reasons why someone would disagree with them.

Once we reach the point where we’re not dealing in absolutes, perhaps we can go one step further and agree that we can each have our own worldview without imposing moral values on those views. Perhaps we can agree to live and let live.

There are some people out there who want atheism to spread, who hope for the day when religious beliefs will have the same status as the belief the world is flat. I’m not interested in convincing people. I don’t care if belief is good or bad for humanity. I don’t care if universal rationalism would make the world a better place. In the big picture, it just doesn’t matter.

I figure I’ll be around for about a century, give or take. While I’m alive I’d just like to be reasonably comfortable and happy and for other people to let me be. (I realize that I’m very fortunate to live in a time and place where I can have both.) Further than that, I don’t care. As long as it doesn’t adversely affect me, if someone wants to believe in an invisible man in the sky, that’s fine with me. Just don’t bother me because I don’t.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section three

Did the Universe Self-Create? (Chapter Four, section three)

I took a look at the rest of the section headings, and it looks like Chapter Four, the “Scientific Evidence for God,” is going to be based entirely around Intelligent Design and disproving evolution. Oh well.

While I’ll go through each of his arguments, I’d like to note that it’s mostly irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists and whether or not He created the universe. Firstly, as I keep saying, disproving evolution just means evolution is not the correct explanation for biodiversity. It doesn’t mean that God did it. Secondly, he seems to be making all the classic creationist mistakes, including conflating the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution. Whether or not evolution is correct has nothing to do with how the universe came into being or how life originated. Finally, this is all pretty much irrelevant because of the inherent problems with the Argument from Design that I discussed earlier.

The author begins by describing a number of complex animal abilities, such as time-sense and the ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide. He then says that it is statistically improbable that these happened through “chance mutation and natural selection.” He even cites the, “Tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747” analogy.

From TalkOrigins.org regarding the tornado analogy:

1) This claim is irrelevant to the theory of evolution itself, since evolution does not occur via assembly from individual parts, but rather via selective gradual modifications to existing structures. Order can and does result from such evolutionary processes.
2) Hoyle applied his analogy to abiogenesis, where it is more applicable. However, the general principle behind it is wrong. Order arises spontaneously from disorder all the time. The tornado itself is an example of order arising spontaneously. Something as complicated as people would not arise spontaneously from raw chemicals, but there is no reason to believe that something as simple as a self-replicating molecule could not form thus. From there, evolution can produce more and more complexity.


In citing statistical imporobability the author here is displaying a lack of understanding of how probability works. To use the standard analogy, any given hand in a game of cards is statistically very improbable. Yet each player does in fact get a group of cards. The reason this works is because while a player is unlikely to get any specific set of cards, they must get some set of cards. Similarly, the extremely unlikely probability that our specific form of life would form is not really relevant. What is relevant is the likelihood of any self-replicating form arising. That our form of life happened to be the lucky one is no more to the point than that I happened to get a pair of fours, a seven, and two jacks in a hand of poker is relevant to the probability that I would get some combination of five cards.

Further, the unlikelihood of a particular event happening is irrelevant once it actually happens. It is extremely unlikely that any particular person will win a Powerball lottery, yet to claim that the winner actually didn’t win by chance and must have been selected deliberately is silly. So even if the formation of self-replicating forms is vanishingly unlikely, we must accept that they formed. To say that the unlikelihood of their formation is proof that they formed due to the intent of a Creator is as silly as maintaining that the lottery winner must have been deliberately selected. As long as something is possible, it can happen, no matter how unlikely it is.

But we don’t even need to resort to pointing out that a one-in-a-ridiculously-high-number chance is still a chance. The staggering improbability of life occurring spontaneously holds only if we assume consecutive trials. The author quotes a claim that the chance of a bacterium evolving is 1 in 10^39,950. Leaving aside for the moment that we are really discussing the likelihood of a simple self-replicating form, not a more complex bacterium, we are not talking about 10^39,950 trials one after another. We are talking about many (trillions?) of simultaneous trials here on Earth. If we include the rest of the universe with all of the stars and planets, we can run through 10^39,950 trials pretty quickly. If you’re a one-in-a-million kind of person, there are six thousand other people just like you. When the number of trials is in multiples of the probability coefficient, the formation of a self-replicating form isn’t just not unlikely, it’s nearly inevitable.

Lastly, the author seems to be confusing the probability of complex abilities evolving slowly through tiny incremental changes driven by natural selection with the probability of those complex abilities arising spontaneously fully-formed. That everything should line up perfectly by chance to give animals these complex abilities is staggeringly unlikely. The probability of a single small change is much higher, and combined with a high number of simultaneous trials (every birth is a trial) and the (non-random) pressures of natural selection to filter for useful changes the emergence of complex abilities becomes much more likely.

The author goes on to cite the opinions two chemists. The first is quoted as saying, “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms could have been generated by accident is zero!” That may well be true, but evolutionary biologists do not claim that “organic structures” and “harmonized reactions” were “generated by accident.” At best, abiogenesis could be characterized as an “accident,” but that is merely the formation of a self-replicator, which would have very simple with few structures or precisely tuned functions. It is through the process of evolution by natural selection, a non-random process akin to careful breeding, that the complexity arose.

The second chemist, Charles-Eugene Guye, is claimed to have proven “through probability calculus that the formation of even one molecule of living matter by mere chance is as good as impossible.” This is more to the point, as it addresses the simple forms that would have arisen through abiogenesis. Yet the phrasing is strange. “Molecules” are not living matter. Complex modern life is made of molecules that are not themselves alive. (Exactly what is and isn’t alive is an interesting question. Are our cells alive? The mitochondria in our cells? Are individual proteins alive? The atoms which form the proteins?) What the author probably meant are organic molecules.

A quick Google search turned up the following from Wikiquotes:

…which claims that the odds are 1 in 10^243 against "two thousand atoms" (the size of one particular protein molecule) ending up in precisely that particular order "by accident." Where did Jelenik get that figure? From Pierre Lecompte du Nouy... who in turn got it from Charles-Eugene Guye, a physicist who died in 1942. Guye had merely calculated the odds of these atoms lining up by accident if "a volume" of atoms the size of the Earth were "shaken at the speed of light." In other words, ignoring all the laws of chemistry, which create preferences for the formation and behavior of molecules, and ignoring that there are millions if not billions of different possible proteins--and of course the result has no bearing on the origin of life, which may have begun from an even simpler protein. This calculation is thus useless for all these reasons, …and is hugely outdated (it was calculated before 1942, even before the discovery of DNA), and thus fails to account for over half a century of scientific progress.


So we see that Charles-Eugene Guye’s calculation is not valid and therefore irrelevant. Quoting these two chemists is yet another appeal to authority. We are to accept these chemists’ conclusions because they are scientists. Yet at the same time we are expected to ignore the opinions of all the scientists the author did not see fit to quote. Are we to believe that all of these other scientists, presumably as competent as the author’s examples, did not know of these men’s work? And that the author, himself not a scientist, is privy to conclusive proofs of which the experts are unaware? We are left with two equally unlikely possibilities. Either all of the scientists who believe evolution to be accurate and that abiogensis occurred are indeed ignorant of these decades-old conclusive “proofs” and would immediatly change their position if only the mathematical proofs were brought to their attention; or that those scientists who hold evolution to be the truth are deliberately ignoring these proofs and are deceiving themselves and others in a massive conspiracy. (Amazingly, I think the author leans towards the latter. We’ll see a little later when I get up to his discussion of why scientists “believe in” evolution.)

The author now discuses the Miller-Urey experiment which showed that organic compounds will spontaneously arise out of a “primordial soup” containing water and other elements necessary for life when electricity is applied to the mixture. This and subsequent experiments have shown that abiogenesis is a plausible explanation for the origin of life. The author calls this a “…“proof” of the theory of evolution.” Of course, the experiment was about abiogenesis, not evolution, and it and similar experiments, while they don’t tell us how life actually arose on Earth, are certainly valid as proof-of-concept. The author puts the word “proof” in quotes, implying that it is in fact no such thing, yet doesn’t bother to explain why the experiment was invalid.

Instead, he makes the strange statement that, “More than fifty years since the original experiment… scientists have still not been able to create the basic elements – such as carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen – that went into making the experiment work.” What does the creation of elements have to do with how life arose? The creation of elements in stars though fusion is a well-understood process. I don’t know if anyone has managed to create elements in a lab, but even if it’s never been done, so what? We know how the elements necessary for life formed. Whether or not humans have managed to recreate the process is irrelevant.

The author now quotes yet another chemist, Harold Urey, (of the Miller-Urey experiment) as saying that the more scientists learn of the origins of life, the more impossible it is for them to accept it as the result of “accidental evolution”, yet they cling to evolution as “an article of faith.” The origin of the quote is the Christian Science Monitor (January 4, 1962).

TalkOrigins has this quote in their quote-mining section and provides the relevant context:


Here is the relevant text:

"Dr. Harold C. Urey, Nobel Prize-holding chemist of the University of California at La Jolla, explained the modern outlook on this question by noting that "all of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere.

"And yet, he added, "We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great it is hard for us to imagine that it did."

"Pressed to explain what he meant by having "faith" in an event for which he had no substantial evidence, Dr. Urey said his faith was not in the event itself so much as in the physical laws and reasoning that pointed to its likelihood. He would abandon his faith if it ever proved to be misplaced. But that is a prospect he said he considered to be very unlikely."

I bet you are just dying to know what the question referred to in the first sentence is, aren't you? The preceding section was on panspermia vs abiogenesis:

"This theory had been proposed before scientists knew how readily the organic materials of life can be synthesized from inorganic matter under the conditions thought to have prevailed in the early days of the earth. Today, Dr. Sagan said, it is far easier to believe that organisms arose spontaneously on the earth than to try to account for them in any other way."

This is a misquote, pure and simple. With the reporting style used, you can't string together the items in the quote marks and assume he said those things in order.


Dr. Urey’s remarks were taken out of context (and I suspect that the version quoted in the book (which is slightly different from that cited on TalkOrigins) is a tweaked version of the misquote, as this version explicitly mentions evolution and more strongly implies that evolution is a dogma). He was not talking about evolution, but about abiogenesis, and he was not talking about faith in a religious sense but of a conviction that the scientific method is the best way to discover the way the world functions.

Further, even if it were true that evolution is a religious belief, accepted on “faith,” that would only serve to put it on an equal footing with other religious beliefs accepted on faith. If the argument is that evolution is an invalid claim BECUASE it's a religious belief, the implication is that all religious beliefs are inherently invalid, an argument that is antithetical to the book's thesis.

I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he lifted the quote from a Creationist source without bothering to check its veracity. This would merely make him unreliable. To assume that he actually did the research and used the quote anyway would imply that he’s dishonest.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shabbos Reading

I came across a few interesting things in my reading over Shabbos, and I figured I’d write them down before I forget them.

There were two interesting articles in this month’s National Geographic. The first was about the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, a group that broke with the Mormon mainstream over the issue of polygamous marriage. According to the article, members of the FLDS believe that their purpose in life is to have as large a family as possible, as this family will be with them through eternity.

What struck me were the similarities between the FLDS society and Orthodox Jews. Not the polygamy, obviously, for all that polygamy is technically muttar. Nor are the societies really similar overall. It was more the small things, like the notion of proper women’s roles as homemakers, the tznius dresses the women wore (though it seems their wardrobe is far more restricted than even the most machmer OJs), and the pictures of FLDS “gedolim” in a picture of a family’s living room, complete with a large portrait of the FLDS prophet that would compare favorably with the pictures many Chassidim keep of their Rebbe.

The article raises some interesting questions, such as whether society at large has a right to object to the FLDS lifestyle when its members seem to be happy and leading fulfilling lives. The same question could be asked of any religious group. It’s just that polygamy is further outside our society’s accepted norms than other differences between religions.

The second article was about nomadic blacksmiths in India who keep five-hundred-year-old social restrictions like not using lamps after dark in remembrance of their ancestor’s defeat at the hands of the Mongols. While many of the people said they would settle down if given the opportunity (despite another restriction against living in villages) there is no outside force compelling them to keep these traditions. Nor are these traditions religious. There is no fear of divine retribution for lighting a lamp. Yet they maintain these traditions, bound to them by a centuries-old sense of honor and internal social pressure. It occurred to me that this was a pure example of a meme, a tradition that is self-sustaining, which has no utilitarian purpose and is in fact restrictive, and which continues to exist only because it is passed down as a norm.

I’ve also been reading “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. While he gets a little preachy at times, on the whole I’ve found the book to be well-written and impeccably rational. There are many interesting points that the book discusses, but as I read a few jumped out at me.

Dennett puts forward a theory that the group worship found in many religions is a means for ensuring the accurate transmission of the religion. If many people are worshiping together, no one has to remember the whole thing perfectly because it is very unlikely that everyone will forget exactly the same bits, and parts that any one person forgets will be filled in by the majority of people who remember them. He describes this transmission as a mesh rather than a chain. It occurred to me that this would be a much better argument for mesorah than the lists of those who held Torah knowledge in succession from Moshe to the present. (Of course, this wouldn’t act as a proof of Torah miSinai, merely as a better argument for mostly accurate transmission once the Divine origin of the Torah is assumed.)

A few pages later he writes about how the inclusion of incomprehensible elements in religious worship enhances the fidelity of their transmission. If we understand something, we are likely to try and modify it or to paraphrase. Instead, he writes, we are told to, “Say the formula exactly! Your life depends on it! (If you don’t say the magic word just right, the door won’t open…)” It’s striking how similar this is in form to the shiur I wrote about last week where the speaker admonished us to stick as closely as we possibly could to the nusach hatifilos handed down to us by our parents and grandparents.

Lastly, he writes about a distinguishing feature of “folk religions,” the religious beliefs of aboriginal populations as opposed to those of organized religions. Members of folk religions aren’t aware of being religious and don’t spend time thinking about their faith. The deities and demons that populate their world are taken for granted, known to exist in the same way as trees do. When asked, they are unable to describe any tenets of their faith, often coming up with flimsy and vague explanations clearly concocted on the spur of the moment in order to answer the strange question put to them by anthropologists. Their metaphysics is just the way the world is, and it never occurs to them to think about it. I think this may be true not just of philosophically unsophisticated folk religions, but of religions in general. While many yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs have rudimentary hashkafa classes, in my experience only a small number of people really think about their faith. The majority just assume that the world, metaphysics and all, is as their parents and teachers describe it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section two

Proving God’s Existence (Chapter Four, section two)

The author brings up Antony Flew, the famous atheist philosopher who, at the age of eighty one, became a believer. The author claims that it was Dr. Flew's “objective scientific research which caused his transition from atheist to believer.” What the author neglects to mention is that many of Dr. Flew’s colleagues felt that his change of heart was brought on by the infirmity of old age. Further, the belief Dr. Flew espoused was a kind of deism, a Divine force that shaped the world and does not currently interfere with it in any way. This is not the omnipotent omniscient micro-managing God of modern Judaism.

Surprisingly, Dr. Flew’s stated reason for changing his mind “is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species.“ This single problem led him to accept Intelligent Design (which we will discuss at length in a moment). While I have not read through Dr. Flew’s arguments and am not a biologist, this would seem to be an argument from ignorance. There are a number of theories that describe how abiogenesis occurred, and while a lot more work needs to be done to determine which, if any, are correct, it seems strange that a noted philosopher would make such a flimsy argument.

Next comes a sub-section titled, “Newton’s Intelligent Design Argument.”

We are treated to a story in which Newton’s “atheist friend” marvels at a clockwork model of the solar system and reacts in disbelief when Newton tells him that it just “fell together.” Newton then asks him how he can insist that the model must have a maker when he believes that the real solar system has none. The author also quotes Rabbi Akiva who said, “As a house implies a builder, a garment a weaver, and a door a carpenter, so does the existence of the universe imply a creator.”

The theological argument that design implies a designer (Argument from Design) is usually referred to as the “Watchmaker Argument” after it’s most famous form devised by Reverend William Payley in 1802. He wrote:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”

The watch in Payley’s hypothetical anecdote serves the same purpose as Newton’s clockwork solar system in the example given by the author.

The argument from design was refuted by the philosopher David Hume decades before Payley expressed it as his famous Watchmaker Argument. From Wikipedia:

“[Hume] argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose". Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognize human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied.”

While someone might try to counter the first argument by claiming that snowflakes and crystals are designed by God, this would be begging the question. It assumes God exists and is responsible for all design, therefore we see that everything that appears designed has a designer, therefore the universe, which appears designed, must have a Designer – God.

Ultimately, unless we can conclusively show that all things that appear to be designed have a designer, claiming that because one thing that appears to be designed (the watch) has a designer, another thing that appears to be designed (the universe) has a designer is a non-sequitur.

There is no answer for the second argument (not even a fallacious one). The analogy comparing the watch to the universe is powerful because it speaks to our experience. But that in itself is the rebuttal. We expect that watches are made by watchmakers because in our experience all watches come stamped with a manufacturer’s brand name. Before mass production a person could go to a watchmaker’s shop and see him put the watch together. In our experience watches are manufactured objects, so if we come across a watch we assume it is like all other watches we have seen up till that point.

On the other hand, we have no experience with universes being created. It doesn’t have any obvious manufacturer’s mark, and we weren’t around to witness it come into existence. The findings of our investigations into the origin of the universe, while they don’t rule out the existence of a Creator as the Prime Motivator, also don’t make such an assumption necessary.

So while assuming watches have creators based on our experience makes good sense, we have no similar reason to say the same for universes.

Hume goes on to point out that if “a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God's mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?” (Wikipedia)

As the famous joke goes:
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!" (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

The Argument from design is, ultimately, “turtles all the way down!”

I hope that tired old arguments that were refuted hundreds of years ago isn’t the best the author can do to “scientifically” prove God exists. If it is, reading through the rest of his “proofs” is going to get annoying very quickly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section one

Scientific Evidence for God (Chapter Four, section one)

The author begins by saying he has shown in part one that a person, “is not a sophisticated animal but a lofty personality with unparalleled value.” I strongly disagree with the claim he has proven any such thing, but fine. Now let’s see if he can indeed, “present evidence that there is a God,” and, “explain why so many scientists adamantly negate God’s existence.” (Incidentally, that last sentence doesn’t work. It sounds like he is trying to say that many scientists adamantly deny God’s existence, which is true enough. What he said means that the existence of scientists in itself proves God doesn’t exist. Once again, this is a nitpick, but I believe it is important to be precise.)

I try to maintain a neutral tone, but what the author says next is so monumentally stupid that it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. He says that if we assume that the universe (the Big Bang) and the beginning of life (abiogenesis) were random chance, then humans are, “accidents: impersonal statistics… A statistic should have no hurts or disappointments. …even the most die-hard atheist, feels hurt and disappointment.”

How does one respond to such a statement? He is trying to say that because the universe came into existence randomly, we are all statistics, and statistics are unfeeling. Yet we do have feelings, so we can’t be statistics and the universe can’t be random. Let’s try to respond without screaming in frustration.
1) “Statistics” is a branch of mathematics used to analyze the frequency of given phenomena. A “statistic” is not a thing, it’s a data point.
2) Regardless of whether the universe “randomly” came into existence or was created by God, we would still be “statistics.” The number of humans alive right now is a statistic, as is the number of people living in the USA, France, and Nigeria, or the number of people who own blue shirts. These are statistics regardless of how the universe or the people who own blue shirts came into existence.
3) “Statistics” don’t have feelings because, like I said, a statistic is a data point, a number arrived at by counting up the occurrences of a given phenomena or the result of applying a mathematical function to a set of data. It is not a thing, it’s an idea. This is an example of the worst kind of equivocation fallacy. That we are “statistics” in the sense that each person is an occurrence of the phenomenon, “human,” does not mean that we are statistics in the sense that we are abstract concepts without the capacity for feeling emotion.
4) Since we are not abstract concepts but rather are physical beings with a nervous system, the fact that we can feel emotions has no bearing on how the universe came into existence.

He goes on to say that,”in a self-created world, there is no order.” I’m not sure how he knows this. It is entirely plausible to say that a world with physical laws could self-organize. This is in fact what many scientists believe to be the case in our universe. Not having had the opportunity to observe both known created and known spontaneously-occurring universes, we have no way to know what to expect each to look like.

He claims that in a spontaneously-occurring universe, there should be no sense of justice, no, “objective laws or truths.” He seems to be talking about moral laws and truths, in which case I completely agree. There is no objective morality. As for a sense of justice, the universe has no sense of justice. People have a sense of justice. People are an infinitesimal fraction of the universe, a vanishingly rare bit of order in an expansive void of entropic chaos. That humans want things to be fair should not be extrapolated to the universe at large.

On a related note, the author now cites the Anthropic Principle, the notion that the universe is fine-tuned for life. First of all, the Anthropic Principle in a scientific sense merely states that it is not a coincidence that we observe the laws universe are conducive to life, becuase if they were not, we would not be here to observe them. It is only as a theological argument that this is extrapolated to mean that the universe was deliberatly fine-tuned for our existence. Second of all, the universe as a whole is most certainly not fine-tuned for our kind of life. Most of the universe is inhospitable to humans. Most of our own planet is inhospitable to humans. Seventy percent of the Earth in covered in water. Of what’s left, a sizeable fraction is frozen wasteland or arid desert.

Thirdly, the Anthropic Principle has things the wrong way around. The universe is not fine-tuned to us; we are adapted to the universe. As Douglas Adams wrote:

“. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

(Incidentally, I thought of a similar analogy, marveling at how well water fits inside its glass, on my own before I ran across Adams’. But his is better.)

The author quotes two physicists who say that were the laws of nature any different, life would be impossible. This is true, but as I said above, we are adapted to the universe, not the other way around. Were the physical constants different, life would be different. Perhaps there would be no life at all. But the fact that the physical laws allow for our kind of life in no more surprising than the fact that the puddle fits perfectly inside its hole.

Perhaps the argument is that the fact our specific form of life does occur shows that the universe was designed to produce it. After all, there could just as well be no life. That we sentient humans exist must mean that there’s a reason for our existence, right?

Unfortunately, teleological arguments fail because we could just as easily say that there is no reason humans or sentience exist other than chance and natural selection. This is not a thought we’re comfortable with, but so what? Our discomfort has no bearing on whether it’s the truth.


The author says that Judaism has always espoused the view that the Universe was created for Man. This is no doubt meant to mesh with the Anthropic Principle and the quoted physicists. Is it really surprising, though, that the same people who thought that the Earth was the physical center of the universe also thought that the same universe was created solely for themselves? In their worldview, the universe was a flat Earth with a hard dome over it in which hung the sun, the moon, and the stars. In this little universe humans were clearly the most advanced – and therefore important - beings, so it made sense to them that everything had been created for people. Today, when we know just how vast the universe is, to claim that the universe was created just for people, or even worse, just for Jews, is the height of arrogance. If intelligent extra-terrestrials were ever to visit Earth, how could we justify our implicit claim that they are merely part of a complicated web of interactions designed to produce and maintain the human race? (Undoubtedly, were we to actually meet aliens and establish relations with them, religious dogma would be reinterpreted to mean that the universe was created for intelligent life rather than specifically humans. But I digress.)

The author now quotes the Alter of Slobodka and, oddly, James Madison, whose quote is merely an appeal to people to behave in a manner consistent with the Ten Commandments. The Alter says that people are worthy of respect because they are formed by God in His image. I think this is a disturbing line of reasoning, and that it is our biological predispositions and social conditioning are what make us value human life, but in any case this line of reasoning is at best an appeal to consequences.

The author candidly admits that he hasn’t proven God, but claims to have, “established a need for God.” Given the failure of his ridiculous attempt with the word “statistic,” the failure of the Anthropic Principle, and the rather disturbing notion that without God people have no value, I don’t think that he has done even that much.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (III)

Finally, let’s address 3, the implication that at some point in the future science will discover that God does exist (and presumably that Judaism is the One True Faith). We must also address the secondary implication that the chance that science may in the future prove the God hypothesis correct is sufficient justification for a current belief in God.

There’s no reason except for wishful thinking to think science will one day find only God could have been responsible for biodiversity. It’s not as though there are currently two popular debated scientific theories, evolution and God, and the evidence currently leans somewhat towards evolution. In such a case, a person could reasonably say that he finds the God theory more likely despite evolution being favored by many experts. He would have to justify why he finds it more likely, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to think further work in biology might show the theory he favors is in fact correct.


But that is not the case. What we have instead is one scientific theory – evolution - a theory about as well established as any other scientific theory; and a tradition stretching back to antiquity that claims God

created all the animals as they are now. There are many traditions that stretch back to antiquity, among them that the Earth is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; and that everything is made of the four elements fire, earth, wind, and water. We have abandoned those traditions because they are counter-factual. We do not hold Aristotle’s elements and the modern elemental table to be equally valid theories. We do not propose that in the future, we might discover that everything is indeed made of earth, fire, wind, and water.

The phrasing also, once again, presents evolution / God-did-it as a dichotomy. There is an assumption that one of these two must be right, and that if evolution is proven wrong, the God theory is right by default. In reality, were evolution to be proven wrong it would be replaced with another scientific theory. In the history of scientific inquiry, never once has something which was once thought to be caused by supernatural phenomena and shown by scientists to be instead caused by wholly natural phenomena reverted back to being explained by the supernatural. While this doesn’t mean that it will never happen in future, it does mean that there is no good reason to assume that it will. No reason other than wishful thinking.

There is also the fact that evolution says nothing about the existence of God. It merely makes Him unnecessary for explaining biodiversity, just as the germ theory of disease made demons unnecessary for explaining illnesses. The most likely outcome of the religion / evolution debate is that religions will adapt and fit evolution into their theologies. Many moderate religions have already done so. Most fundamentalist religions acknowledge that diseases are caused by germs, yet still maintain a belief in demons. I think it may be only a matter of time before they adapt to theologically acknowledge evolutionary theory.

To scientifically prove God exists, it is not enough to disprove theories that provide naturalistic explanations of the world. There must be actual, positive proof of God’s existence. To prove God is responsible for biodiversity, for instance, it is not sufficient to disprove the theory of evolution and then point to a book that claims God did it. Independent positive evidence of God’s involvement must be provided. Alternatively, if one could scientifically prove God exists, prove God authored the book, and prove that God tells the truth, then we could accept the book’s testimony as to how biodiversity came to be.


As for the implication that the possibility God may be proven by science in the future is a good reason to believe in Him now, well, anything is possible. It’s possible I’ll sprout wings and learn to fly. But until I do, I’m not going to jump off any tall buildings. Using this epistemology it’s impossible to determine what it’s reasonable to believe in. After all, even if right now we have no reason to believe something is true, future discoveries may show that it is. The only rational approach is to look at the evidence we have right now and determine whether, in the light of current evidence, it is reasonable to believe something is true or false. That we might be wrong is an inevitable side effect of our being unable to see the future, but that possibility is not a justification for abandoning reason and arbitrarily declaring things true because, after all, we don’t know the future and maybe someday…

To make things worse, it may actually be impossible to scientifically prove God exists – at least, the idea of God most people hold. Before a premise can be scientifically investigated, it must be rigorously defined, and it may be hard to find a less well-defined concept. Ask ten people for finely-detailed definition of God, and you’ll get ten answers. Even we’re one to come up with a generally-agreed upon definition, nearly all definitions include non-falsifiable characteristics.

For instance, the claim that god always answers prayers. If you get what you prayed for, God answered, “Yes.” If you don’t get what you prayed for, God answered, “No.” It is impossible to test whether God answers prayers by looking at the outcomes because whatever the outcome, it is assumed God heard and responded to the prayer. Therefore it is likely that God cannot ever be scientifically proven. Not because His existence is “beyond the reach of science,” with the implication that science just isn’t up to the task; but because the concept of God is structured in such a way that it is impossible to point to something as a disproof. Yet the impossibility of proving this definition of prayer false is not proof that God answers prayers. After all, the same argument could be used to “prove” that a rock answers prayers, or a chair, or absolutely anything. It’s not right or wrong, it’s not even wrong. Without a concrete definition and falsifiable attributes, we can no more scientifically investigate the question of God’s existence than we can investigate the question of whether the rock answers all prayers with “yes” or “no.”

I think that in the coming chapters the author is going to try to scientifically prove the existence of God. That should be interesting. Maybe I read too much into the title of part two and its accompanying quote and have been tearing down straw-men. I sincerely hope so, but I have a feeling that I’m going to be disappointed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (II)

Let’s now address 2, the implication that because scientific theories change they are unreliable. This is usually contrasted with religious doctrine, which remains unchanging. We generally perceive someone who constantly changes his mind as fickle and unreliable, while the person who can always be trusted to be true to his word and not change his mind is steady and virtuous. But claims about how the world functions are not people, and this is not a question of loyalty. This is instead like the person who insists that the sky is purple because that’s what his parents told him, and when you take him outside to show him the sky is blue squeezes his eyes tightly shut.


Scientific theories are our current best guess as to how the world functions, and so are subject to change as we uncover new evidence. Religion, on the other hand, as the revealed wisdom of the Creator cannot change. For religious doctrine to change implies that God was wrong. At the very least, it implies that generations of pious, learned paragons of faith misinterpreted God’s message. This rigid adherence to tradition is not a strength. While we all crave certainty, an unwillingness to change which produces the illusion of certainty is not the same as actually having certain knowledge of how the world functions. The reluctance of religion to change in the face of scientific discovery has led to some strange confrontations. The most famous is Galileo’s run-in with the Catholic Church, and while this was mostly his own fault (he insulted the pope and was notoriously rude towards those who disagreed with him) it, and the even more severe treatment of some of his predecessors, stands as an example of the difficulty of changing doctrine and the lengths of suppression organized religion will go to in order to avoid doing so.


Judaism itself has been left with many, many examples of counter-scientific articles of faith, ranging from the age of the Earth to the creation of the Earth before the Sun. While many of these sorts of difficulties can be gotten around by using non-literal interpretations, if we take the great rabbonim of past generations to be infallible (as much of chareidi Judaism does) we’re forced to accept things like spontaneous generation and Aristotelian physics (particularly the four elements).


What's worse, religion's claim to be unchanging isn’t even true. Religion has changed, often radically, and often in response to social and scientific advances. At a certain point, the evidence is overwhelming, and religious texts are reinterpreted allegorically to fit with the newly-acknowledged truth. There are few people today who claim that the Earth is flat and has corners or that the Sun goes around the Earth. Those who do hold such views are rightly seen as the lunatic fringe.


The real difference between science and religion is that for a scientist, acknowledging mistakes is okay and, “I don’t know,” is an acceptable answer. For the religious apologist, changes to the religion have to be ret-conned so that they were part of the tradition all along, and, “God did it,” serves as a handy answer to any mystery. For the scientist, mistakes are opportunities for improvement and mysteries are exciting new areas of discovery. For the apologist, mistakes are at best a demonstration of the puniness of humans attempting to understand God’s will and mysteries are an opportunity to marvel at His greatness.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mechanistic Metaphysics

I went to a shiur tonight where the speaker discussed differing minhagim various communities have, particularly differing nusachs for davening. He said that it is brought down in kaballah that there are twelve windows through which prayers travel into heaven, corresponding to each of the twelve shevatim. If a member of one shevet attempts to daven using the nusach of another shevet, it will try the window dedicated to his shevet and will fail to pass through because it is the wrong kind of prayer for that window. Today no one knows which shevet he’s from, and further, no one knows the proper nusach for each shevet. Therefore it is important that we each keep the nussach we inherited from our forefathers, because that is the one most likely to be the proper match for the shevet we come from.

Leaving aside that the various nussachs we have today evolved slowly, developing regional differences (and to be fair, the speaker did address the various additions that have accumulated over the years), and that it is very unlikely that these differences have any real relationship to differences that may have existed between the prayers used by the various shevatim, this represents a very mechanistic view of the spiritual world. In this view, our prayers aren’t praise and pleas listened to directly by an omniscient Being, but rather are more like an email packet sent over the internet that must be encoded in the proper language and sent to an appropriate decoder to be unpacked and rendered so that the recipient can read it. If the teffilos are in the wrong nusach, they don’t get through, much like a corrupted email lost forever in cyberspace.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this idea of the spiritual world functioning according to rigid rules much like the ones that govern physical reality. Perhaps the most unfair halachos are those that apply to a mamzer, a child born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship. The child, through no fault of his own, is a spiritual pariah, denied many of the spiritual rights of other Jews and forbidden to marry anyone except for another mamzer. When I complained about the inherent unfairness of such laws, one of my rabbeim compared a mamzer to a crack baby. It’s not the baby’s fault that his mother used cocaine while she was pregnant, but he is still born with physical and mental impairments. Fair doesn’t enter into the equation. That’s just the way it is.

At the time, I really liked his explanation. It changed the halachos of mamzer from the punishment of an innocent to an unfortunate side effect of his parent’s actions. But it also, like the windows for davening, implies that the spiritual world is a place with natural laws. This concept is found, subtly and not-so-subtly, through much of Judaism. It is very different from the intuitive way we think about a spiritual realm. It implies that, were we able to scientifically investigate this realm, we would be able to form the same sorts of theories we do about the physical world, and perhaps even develop technologies. How about an auto-prayer, guaranteed to deliver your tefilos to the right place every time?

More importantly, it reflects a view that the way the world is, including the spiritual world, is the way it must be. The analogy between the mamzer and the crack baby could just as easily be posed the other way. Just as it is unfair that someone suffer spiritually for his parents’ actions, it is also unfair that someone should suffer physically for his parent’s actions. A mechanistic approach absolves God of blame only if He didn’t actively choose to make the world the way it is. If He did, then He is ultimately to blame for both the mamzer and the crack baby.

This in turn would bring us to a discussion of exactly what “omnipotent” means, but I’m already too far from my original point.

According to the speaker I heard tonight, davening is not a direct communication between a supplicant and an omniscient Listener. It is instead an incantation that must be precisely fitted to the individual in order to be effective; if it is not, God can’t hear you. It is a redefinition of “prayer” from the way we typically understand it to a ritual which, if not performed in a way properly fitted to our particular tribal heritage, we get neither credit for nor benefit from, regardless of our intentions or even of our ability to know the proper way to pray.

During the question and answer session that followed the speech, not one person addressed this point.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Effortful Thinking

“But they’re so boring!’ I protested. I was talking to the professor who taught my Experimental Psychology class. We had just finished reading through samples of journal articles, and I found them entirely too dry for my taste. I could write better material, and I was all of twenty years old. These things had been written by people with Ph.D.s!

“I read journals all the time,” one of my classmates chimed in. “That’s how they are.”

I was unconvinced. It wasn’t just that the articles were boring. They were annoying. I had expected an interesting narrative about an experiment. Instead I read, in exhaustive, pedantic detail, about exactly what they were trying to determine, exactly how they conducted the experiment, the makeup of the subject sample, how the sample was chosen, how the sample was divided, how each segment of the sample was assigned various conditions, detailed descriptions of the props and equipment used, the precise details of what was done… on and on and on.

Since then I’ve read a lot of journal articles, and while I’ve found some that are well-written, for the most part they are the same sort of plodding, technical, detailed description and analysis. I’ve come to two conclusions: 1) Most scientists should have taken more writing classes in college, and 2) scientific thinking is not comfortably intuitive.

We’re used to hearing stories. People love stories so much that we’ve built huge industries around making up and presenting stories as books, movies, plays, and television. Anecdotes have a powerful effect on us, but we don’t usually analyze stories. We take away the main points and the interesting bits. If you hear a story about a boy who kicked a dog and got bitten, the take-away point is: don’t kick dogs. It’s not important how old the boy was, how old the dog was, where it happened, what breed the dog was, or what the boy had been doing before he kicked the dog.

For a scientist trying to determine under what conditions a dog is likely to bite someone who kicks him, all of those things (and many more variables) may be important. Trying to think scientifically is not natural, and more, it’s annoying. All those details to keep track of! Yet it is our best method of understanding the world. It is not enough to know that dogs may bite when kicked. By learning why they bite, in which conditions they bite, we increase our knowledge of animal behavior, knowledge which helps us to understand the world in which we live and to make better use of it.

The scientific method, critical thinking, formal logic – all of them are effortful and often counter-intuitive. These ways of thinking are not instinctive, but need to be learned. Unfortunately many people never have the opportunity to learn how to think analytically. Worse, they assume that they know how to think as well as anyone. After all, they think about things all the time! They make intelligent, rational decisions about all sorts of things.

They’re smart people, but they’re like I was that day in college. They find the fussiness of the scientific method annoying, they don’t have the training in critical thinking needed to evaluate a proposition, and they don’t know enough about logic to notice a flawed argument.

I realize this sounds elitist, and maybe it is. But it takes training to do anything well, even things we have a natural talent for. We can all run, but it takes training to run a marathon. We can all talk, but it takes training to be a polished public speaker. And we can all think, but it takes training to use effortful modes of thinking.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (I)

Part Two: Faith in Science or Faith in God?

The author includes an unattributed quote before each chapter, and I have reproduced the one that begins part two of the book in full. It reads:

“If you were an intelligent, rational person living in the twentieth century then you believed in evolution. But as science continues to probe the secrets of the universe, it becomes clearer that believing in God is the more rational option.”

Judging by part two’s title and the quote with which it starts, the author is trying to do a number of things here. In no particular order:
1. He is implying that both science and God equally require faith.
2. He is implying that science is not reliable because scientific opinion changes over time.
3. He is implying that at some point in the future science will discover that God does exist (and presumably that Judaism is the One True Faith.)
4. He is mistakenly assuming that either evolution is correct or God did it. This is a false dichotomy, as it is entirely possible that some third, as-yet-unimagined explanation for biodiversity is in fact correct. Thus, if evolution was shown to be incorrect, the answer to the question, "How did biodiversity arise?" is, "We don't know," not, "God did it."

Each of the first three points deserves a lengthy discussion which is beyond the scope of this critique. Instead I will try to (relatively) briefly show why each one is wrong.

Let’s begin with 1, the implication that both science and God require equal faith. Before we can discuss this premise, we must first define “faith.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as:

1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

Definition 1 is not relevant to our discussion. Definition 2a is not useful to us because if faith is by definition belief in God we cannot speak of faith in science. Definition 2b cannot be what is meant here by faith, both because science is the attempt to build up a system of proven rules about the way the world functions and because the book is an attempt to prove the existence of God and various precepts of Judaism. This leaves us with definition 3, “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.”

Using this definition, it is reasonable to speak of faith in science or God; that is, the strong conviction that science is the best way we have to accurately explain the world or the strong conviction that God exists.
(I would like to note that this is not necessarily an either/or, and I frame it as such only to paraphrase the author's question.)

Unfortunately, when we speak of faith we usually think of definition 2b, “firm belief in something for which there is no [or inconclusive] proof.” The way the question is worded, “Faith in Science or Faith in God?” together with our usual interpretation of the word faith misleadingly implies that it is equally reasonable to trust that science accurately explains the world and to trust that religion accurately explains the world.

Even using definition 3, we must remember that a “conviction” is not proof of accuracy. That someone firmly believes in God does not show that God exists, any more than someone’s firm belief in the truth of a scientific principle means that principle is correct. Our beliefs must be justified. A detailed discussion of epistemology is beyond the scope of this critique, but let us briefly look at how science and religion each derive their principles.

Science begins by assuming we know nothing and our speculative hypotheses are considered incorrect until proven otherwise (the null hypothesis). We then painstakingly prove each premise through experimentation, observation, induction, and inference. Proven hypotheses that collectively explain observed phenomena form theories, which are then tested for accuracy by further experimentation and observation to see if the world actually behaves in the way the theory predicts that it will. Science is done by fallible human beings who may design flawed experiments, misinterpret results, and even come up with theories that seem to be accurate but are later shown to be false. A high demand for independent verification and the prestige that comes with new discoveries, especially paradigm-changing discoveries, ensures that experiments are repeated by many people, many of whom are often trying to prove the original experimenter wrong. This verification process assures that mistakes will eventually be caught and corrected.

In short, science moves from premise to proof to conclusion, and the proofs and conclusions of any given scientist are scrutinized by others looking for mistakes and are reinterpreted or discarded in light of new evidence.

Religion knows what is true not through the careful establishment of premises, but through revealed wisdom. Religion begins with the conclusions, does not require independent corroboration of those conclusions, and marginalizes or ignores all evidence against those conclusions. After all, there can be no greater Authority on how the world functions than its omniscient Creator. If God tells us something is true, it must be so, and any evidence to the contrary must be wrong.

Religion assumes its conclusions are true and immutable because they were handed down by the ultimate Authority, God.

The question is which is more justified? One of the problems with the religious approach is that it is essentially an argument from authority – the authority (God) said it, so we assume it’s true without bothering to examine the authority’s reasoning. Yet we can reasonably argue that an omniscient God is different than a human authority. We must examine a human authority’s justification for his statement because people can make mistakes, regardless of their stature. God is infallible and all-knowing.

This argument still leaves us with a problem. How do we know that God in fact exists, is omniscient, infallible, etc., and that a given book is indeed His revealed wisdom? That the Torah makes these claims is not by itself evidence that these claims are true. The only way to conclusively prove these premises is through experimentation, observation, induction, and inference. And now we’re back to science.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section four

The Global Kindergarten (Chapter Three, section four)

The author now addresses why God would have created us with the desire to do bad things. He is at this point assuming he has demonstrated the existence of free will, and says that only by having the opportunity to choose to do bad do our choices to do good become meaningful. This is a pretty standard line or argument, and is usually presented as part of a larger set of arguments that attempt to answer the Problem of Evil.

The author complicates it though with an emotional appeal by noting that little children are not allowed to make important decisions, and making decisions is a sign of adulthood. The implication is that if you’re denied the possibility of making choices (either because free will doesn’t exist or because God didn’t provide us with the option to do bad things) you’re functionally a preschooler. To which our reaction is supposed to be, “How dare you say that I’m like a child! Of course free will exists, and how kind God is to allow us to make choices!”
{emotional appeal}

The argument itself seems to make good logical sense. We can only make choices if there are options to choose between. Note though that this argument presupposes that the benefit of having free will outweighs the cost in evil acts people will commit.
If we were to grant that it is worth the cost, we then have to address why in many cases we seem to be programmed so that we are driven to commit bad acts. This goes beyond merely having the choice of good or bad.

For instance, people are predisposed to divide themselves up into little social groups and to see those outside the group as less-than-human. This predisposition has been the root cause of untold suffering. Yet it doesn’t seem that this particular tendency is necessary for free will. Wouldn’t it be sufficient if we felt neutral towards those outside our group? Then we truly could choose to be kind or cruel to them. Instead, we have to fight our nature (through socialization, education, etc.) just to see outsiders as fellow human beings.

Still, the basic premise that evil at least needs to be possible still stands, even if we can’t explain why God thought it was necessary to predispose us towards evil in some situations. This brings up another question. What is evil? Let’s define evil, in this context, as going against what God would prefer you to do. In that case, we could have free will without anyone having to suffer. God could have arranged it so that the only choices we had were whether to keep bein adom l’makom mitzvos like Shabbos and kashrus, while it would never even occur to us to steal or murder. This way free will could be maintained without the need for human suffering. That evil is necessary for free will is not a justification for the ability of one person to cause another to suffer.

That said, I concede that hypothetically speaking for us to have free will there must be options to choose from, and for us to choose to do “good” (defined as what God prefers) we must be able to choose to do “evil” (defined as not doing what God prefers). Of course, if free will is just an illusion, this is all irrelevant.

The author now quotes a rabbi who asserts that free will is what constitutes the self, and the author states that, “Just as the seat of hearing is the ears, the seat of free will is the soul.”

Firstly, the statement that free will is the self is rather strange. Surely there is more to the self than that! What about our thoughts, emotions, memories, and personality? Aren’t these what we usually mean by the self?

Secondly, why should we assume that free will is seated in the soul? Has the author forgotten his own argument from the beginning of the chapter, where he explained mechanistically how free will is made possible by the balancing of all influencing factors? If his theory is correct, there is no need to posit a metaphysical soul to explain free will, just a module in the brain that decides between options when all other influences are balanced. But then, the brain is a physical construct and therefore is itself influenced by the environment. Therefore such a brain module would itself merely be a product of influence, and such a choice could not truly be said to be free will. He may be right that we need something metaphysical, completely removed from all influences, if we are to come up with a scenario in which one could be truly said to be exercising free will. Yet this still:
1) Assumes free will is a real phenomenon, something that has not been demonstrated.
2) Redefines the soul as that thing which allows us to make uninfluenced choices in rare specific cases. This is in contrast to the traditional understanding of the soul as that which animates the body and defines the self. Showing that in a specific hypothetical case for a given hypothetical phenomenon to function there must be a metaphysical component, and then labeling that component, “the soul,” does not show that the soul as traditionally defined exists. It’s just playing with semantics. In short, an equivocation fallacy.
3) Positing a metaphysical component to make free will work doesn’t really explain how free will functions. All it does is take one thing whose functioning we don’t understand – free will – and replace it with another thing whose functioning we don’t understand – the soul. This is the fallacy of pseudo-explaining one mystery with another mystery.

The author now cites, “The Zohar (the authoritative, ancient book on mysticism),” as saying that man has two souls, a lower animalistic soul the same as that which animates all animals, and a higher soul that makes, “Homo Sapiens become human beings.”

Firstly, he might want to qualify his statement about the Zohar by adding, “Accepted by many Orthodox Jews as…” Textual scholars, many rabbonim at the time of its publication, and a good number of contemporary Orthodox Jews agree that while the contents of the Zohar may be based on extant kabalistic ideas, the book itself was most probably written by Moses De Leon, the man who claimed to have discovered it in 1270. If that is the case, the Zohar is old, but not ancient. It also probably shouldn’t be accepted as authoritative, as its claim to authority rests on its authorship by R’ Shimon bar Yochai.
{questionable historical fact}

The second issue is more of a nitpick than a problem with his point. The author is trying to say that the higher soul is what makes people different than animals, what elevates our physical bodies to become people. What he actually said is taxonomical nonsense.

From Wikipedia: “The word "human" is from the Latin humanus, the adjectival form of homo.” Thus the word “human” technically refers to the entire genus homo. Modern humans are Homo sapiens, a single species (although the only non-extinct one) within the genus homo. (If we want to be precise, all people currently living are Homo sapiens sapiens - members of the sapiens variety of the species Homo sapiens.) Thus earlier humans became Homo sapiens, not the other way around.
{incorect scientific fact}

The author ends the chapter by once again asserting that the soul is the seat of all virtues and that it must remain in control of the body, this time comparing the soul to a parent that must control their impulsive child. He says that neither the child nor the body are “bad” for desiring pleasure, but, “It is the juvenile nature to choose indulgence and pleasure.” This unsupported assertion is an emotional appeal that attempts to equate fulfilling one’s desires with a child’s insistence on eating candy for breakfast. Once again, we are supposed to react by shying away from any implication of childishness and proclaim that, of course, we have a soul and it is in firm control of our bodies. We are adults! I’m not disputing that a young child has little self control. But drawing an analogy between a child and the body to reinforce an assertion that the body is the seat of all desires and the soul is the seat of all virtues does not make it so.
{emotional appeal}

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section three

I don’t know how many people are reading these posts (though I noticed I’ve been getting more hits since I started posting every day), but there haven’t been many comments. I’d like to think that’s because my brilliant dissection of the book leaves you all speechless, but I must humbly admit that I do occasionally make mistakes. If anyone spots any flaws in my arguments, I’d appreciate it if you point them out so that I can correct them.



“The Twinkie Defense” (Chapter Three, section three)

The author cites several ludicrous defenses brought in real-life trials, then cites, “The Twinkie Defense.” A man who murdered two of his coworkers claimed that he could not be held accountable for his actions because he was hyperglycemic and had consumed a Twinkie and Coke on his way to work, causing his blood sugar to skyrocket and cloud his judgment. The jury bought it and lowered the charges from first-degree murder to manslaughter.

At least, that's the way the author presents it. In reality, the defense cited a recent change in the defendant's diet from very health-concious to sugary foods and drinks as a symptom of his overall downhill slide in the time leading up to the murders. Their defense was based on diminished capacity, a claim that the defendant was in an impaired state through no fault of his own and that this state, rather than malicious premeditation, was why he had killed his coworkers.

The author tries to use this case to show that people today get out of being held accountable for their actions by claiming they didn’t act willfully but were instead controlled by circumstances. This case shows no such thing. First degree murder is the malicious premeditated killing of another person. If the defense was correct, the defendant in this case didn’t commit murder, he committed manslaughter. And he was held accountable for manslaughter.

(Whether or not we should make such distinctions if all killings are equally the result of circumstances rather than our free will is a separate discussion. The facts in this case were judged to fit the technical definition of manslaughter, not murder, and so he was properly convicted of manslaughter.)
{unjustified claim}

The author now insultingly implies that scientists are deliberately interpreting data to discredit the concept of free will. He states, “…scientists gain a lot by denying free will: they can get away with the most outrageous actions and be held culpable of nothing.” For a book that is attempting to use rational arguments and scientific principles to support religious claims, this seems awfully close to the universal-conspiracy-of-scientists-intent-on-destroying-religion nonsense I was fed in elementary school.
(I realize that this in itself isn't an argument against his accusation, and that I am making something of an emotional appeal here, but this isn't the place to debunk the scientific conspiracy claim. That will come a little later, in part two of the book.)

He goes on to say that free will allows people to change and grow and denying free will reduces people to helpless automatons. This may be true. (Though I think it’s debatable – even if free will is an illusion, the illusion is so strong that treating it as real in some cases could be useful. The perception that we have free will may itself be a contributing factor among those that drive our decisions. Or maybe not, but it’s not a foregone conclusion either way.) But it’s an appeal to consequences. That acknowledging our lack of free will may rob people of motivation for positive change does not mean that we have free will.
{appeal to consequences}

It’s possible that he meant that people could change and grow ONLY if they had free will, and the fact that people do change shows that free will is a real phenomenon. But this isn’t true, because those changes could themselves be the product of the influences that drive a person’s behavior.
{unjustified conclusion}

I also think that the claim that a lack of free will reduces people to helpless automatons is an appeal to emotion. Most peoples’ reaction will be, “Of course I choose what I do. I’m not some kind of a helpless robot stuck with its programming!” The idea that our decisions are not the result of a conscious choice is very disconcerting.
{appeal to emotion}

This is followed by a story of a person who learned to control his temper and a poetic quote from a rabbi claiming that to be human is, “to ascend higher than angels and to descend lower than the vilest creature… Every day is… a new opportunity to climb… and climb we must.” Very touching, I’m sure, but not at all relevant to the question of whether we have free will. Anecdotes and assertions do not evidence make.

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section two

What Does Judaism Say About the Subject? (Chapter Three, section two)

According the Judaism, the author says, we have a soul and, unlike animals which are driven by their desires, we can control our desires and choose our actions. This ability to choose is what makes us human. He claims that only humans can choose to do things like face their fears or return things they find. I’m not sure whether this is actually true, but even granting that it is, the author’s next statements are baffling.

He says, “Free choice operates only in the realm of morality.” He says that heredity and environment may determine what you like to wear, the kinds of things you buy, even major life choices like your career. But moral choices, those are different. Those are subject to your “free will.” Think about this for a minute. Is there any functional difference between the way in which we choose which shirt to buy or whether to return the extra change the cashier gave when we bought it? Choices, all choices, are made for a variety of intuitive, emotional, and rational reasons.

Perhaps the author means to say that choices that are in line with your desires, such as which shirt to buy, are driven by environment and genetics, while choices that go against our desires, like returning money, are products of our free will. (This seems to be in line with his statement that facing our fears is exercising free will, even though I’m hard pressed to see how facing one’s fear is related to morality. Is it immoral to avoid high places because of one’s acrophobia?) But this isn’t a distinction between moral and amoral choices. If I were to choose to buy and wear a shirt that I despised, is that a moral choice? Yet according to this definition, by making such a choice I would be exercising my free will. Similarly, if I were to return money I found because of the pleasure I get from seeing another person happy to get their money back, that is not a choice made using free will even though it is moral.

Keep in mind, also, that the entire premise is flawed. If I’m right about the author’s intended meaning, he is assuming that either we want to do something or we don’t, and if we do it despite not wanting to we are exercising free will. Our decision making is far more subtle and takes more than our immediate impulses into account. We drag ourselves out of bed in the morning even though we don’t want to because our desire for a paycheck is stronger than our desire to stay in bed. Similarly, any actions we take that go against our immediate desires are most probably prompted by other factors such as societal conditioning, later rewards, or emotional urges. Our decisions about whether to behave altruistically are even dependant on the exact conditions in which we find ourselves. There have been experiments that show that if someone thinks another person is waiting for him he is less likely to stop and help a person in need. Given all of these factors that come into play when we are making decisions, can we really be said to be exercising “free will?”

In the next paragraph the author acknowledges the influences on our decisions, and says that, “It [free will] kicks in only at the point (unique for every individual) where the scales are evenly weighted between the possibilities.” In the abstract, I have to agree that this makes a certain amount of sense. But given a mechanistic view of decision making, a scale (to use the author’s analogy) on which are weighed all the factors influencing our decisions and the heavier side determines our actions, isn’t it possible that those times when the scale balances perfectly are the times we find ourselves paralyzed by indecision? The author is assuming that we tip the scale by exercising our free will. Perhaps there is no such thing as free will, and a balanced scale leaves us deadlocked until something throws weight onto one side.

Granted, this is speculation on my part, but so is the author’s theory of scales and narrow bands where all influencing factors balance to allow for the exercise of free will. Without any evidence it is impossible to say which of our theories, if either, is correct.

He now cites a study done at Princeton University in 2004. The researchers presented the subjects with a serious moral dilemma and observed their brain activity using an MRI machine. They found that in addition to the activity found in the emotional areas of the brain when subjects make simple decisions, there was activity in the abstract thinking and decision-making areas. The author interprets the extra activity to mean that they were making a free-will choice as opposed to one that was wholly influenced by other factors. This despite:
1) The obvious conclusion that complex dilemmas about hypothetical situations require input from more sophisticated areas of the brain to reach a decision than do simple questions.
2) This runs counter to his earlier argument that the point at which the scales balance and free will kicks in is unique for every individual. We would have to assume that all of the subjects in the experiment just happened to have the particular scenario presented to them fall in that narrow band where all the factors influencing their decision balanced and they were able to exercise free will. While possible, it is unlikely that a random scenario would fall into the free-will band for any of the subjects, let alone all of them, and we have no reason to say that it did in this case other than to lend support to the author’s theory.
3) The author writes that the neuroscientists running the experiment reached the conclusion that complex decisions take longer because they use more recently evolved parts of the brain. The author discounts their conclusion for no apparent reason (though I wonder if he might consider their reference to evolution enough of a reason). I’m inclined to give the neuroscientists’ interpretation of the experiment more weight than a layman’s, myself and the author included.

The author’s theory, with very little reference to Judaism despite the section heading, is that free will exists, albeit only in that narrow band where all other factors are evenly balanced. Strangely, he thinks that such balance only occurs in relation to moral choices. Unfortunately for his theory, the decision scales are likely to balance perfectly very infrequently, and I would guess that when they do the result is indecision, not an opportunity for free will. (This may be an unknowable, as it is likely impossible for us to ever measure ALL of the factors that influence a given decision.) The experiment cited is largely irrelevant to the author’s theory, and the conclusions he draws from it are unwarranted.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section one

Soul Properties: Are Our Choices Predetermined? (Chapter Three, section one)

The author begins with a story of an elderly man who, determined to conquer his fear of flying, boards a plane for his annual trip to his favorite vacation spot rather than take a train as he had been doing for years. (The author expresses his awe of this man, and I’m inclined to agree, insofar as this was something that took a lot of willpower. Conquering phobias by immersion is an extremely difficult thing to do. Fortunately, there are straightforward therapeutic techniques to cause phobias to cease, and the elderly man in the story would have been better off going to a therapist for a few sessions than risk a heart attack by forcing himself to fly. All of this is, however, beside the point.) The author asks whether we can doubt that this man made a conscious choice to board the plane and conquer his phobia.

The author here is conflating, “making a conscious choice,” with, “exercising free will.” That we arrive at a decision based on a conscious process does not mean that process wasn’t influenced in part or wholly by something outside our control. Our decisions are influenced by many things, not least of which is culture. Had the man in the story not lived in a society which saw conquering your fears as a noble endeavor it is highly unlikely he would have boarded that plane. He didn’t choose the society he was born into or the social norms he was indoctrinated with, yet those social norms had a profound influence on his “conscious” decision.

The influence of society alone doesn’t negate free will, but let’s engage in some speculation. Let’s suppose that this man was very close with his late father, and his father believed that conquering one’s fear was very important, to the point where he thought that someone who didn’t do something because he was afraid was a coward. Let’s further suppose that our elderly man is religious and believes he will see his father again in the afterlife. Now let’s say he had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

This specific situation probably isn’t true of the man in the story, but hypothetically speaking, if it was, could we say that his belief he would soon be seeing his father again, and his fear that his father would see him as a coward if he died without conquering his fear of flying, forced him to board that plane? Would his conscious choice to conquer his phobia then be an act of free will, or the inevitable outcome of a confluence of circumstances?

The author now states that modern science says there is, “nothing non-physical about the mind,” and our choices are a product of biology. The physicality of the mind is what I’ve been arguing for all along, and I tend to think that free will is an illusion. It will be interesting to see how the author tries to show that the scientists are wrong. Let’s see if there’s anything other than appeals to consequences.

Ah, here we go. Appeal to consequences: “This theory is as preposterous as it is dangerous. If our choices are not ours… we can no longer be responsible for any of our decisions. …The theory exonerates most evil people, including even Hitler.”

That we would not be able to hold people morally accountable for their actions without free will, and that this idea makes us uncomfortable, has nothing to do with whether or not we actually have free will. Further, the author compounds his appeal to consequences with an emotional appeal when he states that a lack of free will exonerates even Hitler. We are supposed to react in moral outrage. Hitler was a monster! He was evil, and must be held morally responsible for his actions! Again, that we feel outrage at the idea Hitler may not be morally responsible for his actions does not mean that we have free will.

The author also tries to imply that denying free will leads to anarchy, as he claims that every lawyer can say his client committed the crime, but it can’t be held accountable because his lack of free will means, “it wasn’t his fault.” The real question here is what is the purpose of the legal system? The author seems to be taking the approach that the legal system is a way to balance the universe’s books. If someone does something wrong, they must be punished. If they don’t have free will, they can’t be held morally accountable for a wrongdoing, and so shouldn’t be punished. I would argue that the purpose of the legal system is to protect society. If a person is a murderer, they should be imprisoned because they represent a threat to society. If a person causes financially calculable harm to another, he should pay – not as a punishment to him for causing the harm, but so that those who are caused harm will be protected from loss. As the agent of that harm, he is responsible for making good the loss.

“Ah”, some might argue, “but that’s not fair! It’s not his fault! He has no free will!” True enough, but if someone is standing on a ladder to fix his roof, a stray dog wanders into his yard and knocks down the ladder, and he lands on and breaks his neighbor’s lawn furniture, he is still responsible to pay for the broken furniture even though he cannot be held morally accountable for the chain of events that led to the furniture’s destruction.

(Please note, I am not trying to make the legal system the basis of morality. Nor does the fact that at times not being in full control (crimes of passion) may be taken into account mean that my approach is wrong, because it is entirely possible that part of our legal system is built on the same supposition the author makes, i.e. that the law is meant to punish those who did wrong in order to balance the universe’s books.)

Further, the existence of consequences for given actions are themselves part of the circumstances that determine our actions.
{appeal to consequences, emotional appeal }

The author goes on to quote several scientists and philosophers as saying that while we have the perception of free will, we do not have actual free will. He quotes Einstein as saying, “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.” I’m not sure why the author included the quote, except perhaps as a contrast to the next section where he talks about Judaism’s stance on free will.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I’m Psychic!

This morning as I walked to my car I idly recalled how once as a teenager I had been waiting in the car for my mother while she ran into a store. The meter she had parked by ran out, and a traffic cop wrote a ticket and stuck it on the windshield as I watched.

As I got closer to my car, I noticed an orange envelope under windshield wiper. The city cleans the streets here on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I had accidentally parked on the wrong side of the street last night. I’d gotten my first parking ticket.

This must mean I have precognitive abilities, right? I was thinking about an incident involving a parking ticket, and then I discovered my car had been ticketed. I’m psychic!

Except… I’m not entirely sure whether I recalled the story before or after I noticed the ticket on my car. And then there are all the other times I’ve thought about incidents involving parking tickets when I didn’t get a ticket. I used to work for a place where part of my job was dealing with the company’s parking tickets. Back then, I thought about parking tickets all the time. But… I didn’t have a car then. So it doesn’t count, right? This can’t have just been a coincidence. It’s too weird. It’s spooky.

No, I’m sure of it. I’m psychic!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Am I A Zealot?

Over the last week I’ve had an interesting conversation in the comment thread to Frum Satire’s post, Is the Torah outdated and irrelevant? I’ve found myself in a debate over the existence of God, arguing for the unlikelihood of His existence. Frum Satire’s blog is an interesting place to have conversations like these because he draws a diverse group of people, who range from strong believers to atheists and from educated intellectuals to… those who are not so intellectual.

I have to ask myself, why do I do this? Part of the answer is because it’s fun. I enjoy debating (especially winning). Part of it is that such conversations force me to think about other points of view and to articulate my own beliefs, which leads me to a better understanding of issues surrounding religion. But I had to ask myself: could part of it be the zealotry of a recent convert?

I’ve been a skeptic for as long as I can remember, always insisting that what I learned in school make logical sense. I’ve always tried to relate what I learned to the real world, and thought about the practical implications of the various things my rabbeim would teach me. I’ve had serious doubts about religion and God since I was sixteen. Yet I’ve always had this hazy notion in the back of my head that God was out there. There were a few arguments for the existence of God that I had heard as a teenager, thought were pretty good, and never really let myself examine. Everyone around me didn’t have any doubts. I couldn’t deny the basis of my culture. And yet, I remember writing papers in college for a writing class where I discussed arguments for various religions and concluded that Hashem was the Creator of the universe and Judasim was the One True Religion. And I didn’t buy it. (The professor, a frum woman, loved it. I got an “A” in that class.)

It wasn’t until I discovered the blogosphere that I realized I wasn’t unique, that there were other people out there who agreed with me, and that it was okay to think the way I did. I found myself drawn to the blogs of fellow skeptics, both those who had left the frum lifestyle and those who, like me, continue to live in the frum community. We all love to hear opinions that confirm our own, and I was eating it up. Very quickly, I came to identify myself as a skeptic and even as an atheist. All this within the last couple of years.

So while the skeptical mode of thought is not new to me, my interest in science, logic, history, and theology are not new, my self-identification as a skeptic is new. And maybe, just maybe, part of why I’m drawn to theological debates is a compulsion to defend my new identity.