Monday, December 15, 2014

If God Was One of Us…

If God Was One of Us…

A hundred thousand years from now, technology has progressed almost beyond what anyone today could have imagined. A man, an R&D engineer named Bob, is fiddling with his company's latest model of long-distance transporter, and serendipitously discovers how to transport himself outside of space-time. Excited at his new discovery, he grabs a couple of instruments that will let him measure and manipulate the non-space. After a few years, he's figured out how do things in the non-space nothingness.

Using his futuristic technology, Bob creates a universe - our universe, the same one that he came from. Ignoring the paradox, Bob nurtures the universe. Existing outside of space-time, Bob is eternal, and unconstrained by time. His instruments allow him to monitor everything about the universe, and he knows everything that happened/is happening/will happen in the universe. He wants only the best for the inhabitants of the universe, and he can use his technology to manipulate the universe at will. As intelligent beings evolve, Bob gives them instructions for how to best live their lives. Unfortunately these instructions are almost always clothed in mythology, but Bob decides not to interfere too much, and lets the various intelligent species get on with their lives.

Bob is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent, created the universe and has given revealed wisdom. Is Bob God?

On a completely unrelated note, I came across something really interesting today. Apparently the leading theory for why repeating a word over and over makes it sound like gibberish is that repeating the word causes the neurons that code the meaning of the word to fire over and over. After a few repetitions, the neurological response becomes less and less, much like how when you walk into someone's house you may notice its unique smell, but after a few minutes it fades as your olfactory nerves stops responding to it. As the neurological excitement ceases, you stop noticing the smell - or stop attaching meaning to the sound that you're making.

I think it's fascinating that we have answers to "weird" things like this. And it shows how our experiences really can be reduced to brain functions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Similar Songs

I always find it interesting how similar different religions are in their outline. This song:

reminded me of this song:

While there are differences, the message of the two songs is very similar.

Friday, October 31, 2014

My Epistemology: Part 1

I think that I have a fairly well-developed epistemology, but a recent conversation made me realize that it might be prudent to explore and formalize how I (ideally) determine what is true and what the implications of those methods might be.

First I need to define my terms.

Something is "true" if it conforms to the facts. Truths are usually objective and could be determined by anyone with enough information. People don't get to have their own truths about anything except highly subjective things, like, say, what the best flavor of ice cream is.

A "belief" is something that is held to be true, to a greater or lesser degree. It is not necessarily something that one is absolutely sure about, as there is virtually nothing that we can be sure of with complete certainty. It is also not to be confused with faith, which is act or state of holding a belief without proof.

Next up: a method for determining what is true.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Girls' Costumes

Which is worse?

A culture that produces highly sexualized firefighter and police officer costumes for little girls ...

or a culture that so sexualizes little girls that the girls' faces have to be blurred out, even when they are modestly dressed, so that grown men don't have "bad thoughts?"

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rationalist Mystics

There are several ways of viewing what halacha is. I think the most common conception is that halacha is a set of rules that Hashem gave us in order to guide us in living the best possible life. In this view, Hashem is personally pleased or displeased by our actions, intentions matter, and we are rewarded and punished accordingly. Rabbinic emendations to halacha are attempts to safeguard the rules and to improve our likelihood of pleasing Hashem and living a good life.

 A Maimonadean friend of mine sees halacha as a set of laws given to us by Hashem which we are then free to build on using a duly appointed system of courts. In this view, halacha is a system for keeping society together, as is any legal system, and for carrying out the Divine purpose. It is superior to other legal systems because its foundation is divine,  but sin is not a matter of displeasing God (though He may be displeased when we break halacha) but a matter of jurisprudence.  

A third way of seeing halacha is as a reflection of the workings of a hidden world, a guide to the physics of the metaphysical. So we refrain from, say,  eating non-kosher foods not because (or not solely because) eating treif displeases God or because it's illegal, but because non-kosher foods are poisonous to our souls. In this view, intentions don't matter. Poison will kill you whether you intended to ingest it or not. Non-kosher food  will damage your soul whether you knew it was treif or not.

Where this view runs into problems is the fact that most of halacha as it's now practiced is midirabanan, and different communities have different , equally legitimate halachic practices. Some things are easy to justify as enhancing a mitzvah or safeguarding us from sin, but others are disagreements about what the halacha itself prescribes. If halacha reflects metaphysical reality, then it MUST BE that differing halachos/minhagim in different places reflect different local metaphysical realities. It further follows that local poskim, through issuing their rulings, are actively changing their local metaphysical realities. Given that halacha often describes  physical phenomena or depends on how they work, it's only a small leap to then say that local pesak changes physical as well as metaphysical reality.

So it turns out that the position that pesak changes metaphysical and possibly even physical reality, which seems as hardcore a mystical position as there can be, is arrived at through rationalist logic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pious Perverts

My BMG-going brother-in-law is getting married this summer to a girl from Lakewood, in a Lakewood wedding hall. We found Easter dresses – I mean, wedding gowns – for my daughters for a great price, but were told they would have to wear shirts under the (sleeveless) dresses to cover their arms. My daughters are seven and four. Worse, this dictate was passed to us by my wife’s sister, who was similarly surprised and dismayed when her mother told her that her one-year-old had to have her arms covered. My mother-in-law said it was implied to her that everyone must conform to Lakewood standards of tznius.

Tznius is touted as virtuous, and the tznius frum woman supposedly is not identified solely with her body, in sharp contrast with the debauchery of the general culture, where women are sexualized and objectified. In truth, tznius (at least in its current incarnation) creates a culture where women are highly sexualized, so much so that they are basically walking sex objects. Granted, they’re valued on how well they keep their sexuality from distracting men, rather than on how much they flaunt it, but that just makes it worse. It lets the society pretend that it’s exceptionally virtuous, that it’s not sexualizing women, while in fact it’s making women’s sexuality their most salient feature.  The culture around an underwear model is not claiming piousness,   while the pious tznius culture sexualizes women so much that even an elbow is pornographic.

Nor is it just a matter of social norms, of what is and isn’t considered acceptable to show in public. Women are told that their greatest mitzvah is tznius, just as men’s greatest mitzvah is learning. And why is tznius so important? Not as an end in itself, but so that men don’t chas v’shalom notice anything sexy, because apparently a man noticing a woman and thinking, “Hey, she’s pretty!” is a horrible aveirah. To say nothing of actual sexual thoughts. For a woman, it’s not talmud torah k’neged kulam, but hiding-that-you’re-at-all-attractive k’neged kulam.

Which brings me back to my daughters and niece and their sleeveless dresses.  If the reason for tznius is lifnie iver, the concern that a non-tznius woman will cause a man to have sinful thoughts, then it follows that anything banned for tznius reasons must be at least somewhat arousing. And because we don’t pasken halachos based on far-fetched cases, it must be something that is arousing to most people, and not just one or two people with strange predilections. It further follows that if little girls are made to cover their arms for tznius reasons, then it must be that the average person in the society finds little girls’ arms sexual. [For the record, I doubt that anyone in the yeshivish world has thought through the logical implications of tznius for one-year-olds, but still…].

So not only are adult women sex objects whose sexuality must be minimized to prevent sin, but even little girls are sex objects! And they have the chutzpah to call secular society sick!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Producing Prayer’s Perceptions

From Cults In Our Midst, by Dr. Margaret Singer, among persuasion techniques used by cults are:

Continuous overbreathing causes a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, producing respiratory alkalosis. In its milder stages it produces dizziness or light-headedness. More prolonged overbreathing can cause panic, muscle cramps, and convulsions. Cults often have people do continuous loud shouting, chanting or singing to produce this state, which they reframe as having a spiritual experience
Constant swaying motions, clapping or almost any repeated motion helps to alter a person's general state of awareness. Dizziess can be produced by simple spinning or spin dancing, prolonged swaying and dancing. Group leaders relabel the effects of these motions as ecstasy or new levels of awareness.

As a teenager I would often get dizzy during Shacharis. And the shukeling in some shuls, to borrow an image from Mark Twain, could power a city if only someone would find a way to attach the bobbing upper bodies to a generator.

The above techniques are not used in the frum world for blatant manipulation in the way they’re used by cults, but it seems likely these behaviors – prolonged chanting causing changed breathing patterns and repetitive motion – evolved and became a standard part of davening for the same reasons that cults urge them on their members. They are physiological means to produce real experiences which can then be pointed to as experiential proof of the validity of davening in particular and Judaism in general.