Monday, May 30, 2016

God Vanishes in a Puff of Logic

Renee Descartes, after proving the existence of God to his satisfaction, uses God to get himself out of the radically skeptical corner he painted himself into with his cogito. He reasons that God is perfect, and a perfect Being would not deceive him, as deception is a form of imperfection. Therefore he can deduce that the world he experiences is real and not a product of God deceiving his senses.

I think that the same line of reasoning can be used to prove that God does not exist:

1. God is perfect.
2. Deception is a form of imperfection, and a perfect Being would not deceive us.
3. Therefore a perfect being would not deceive us by creating us in such a way that we would perceive things that are not true.
3a. AND a perfect Being would not lie to us.
4. What we perceive often contradicts what God told us.
C. God doesn't exist. QED

I really enjoy this argument. There is something satisfying about turning the Ontological Argument on its head and defining God out of existence. And it reminds me of the argument from Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy that the Babel Fish is so obviously a proof for God's existence that it proves He doesn't exist. Unfortunately, I don't think the argument is sound.

Premise one may not be true, and the argument only disproves the existence of a perfect God. Premise two may not be true, and perfection may include the ability to do all things, including to deceive. Premise five may not be true, and is in fact the subject of a lot of apologetics that attempt to reconcile religion and science. I'm afraid that the whole thing feels like sophistry. Still fun though.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plato's Midrash

I was listening to lecture about Aristophanes when the lecturer brought up Aristophanes' role in Plato's Symposium. The philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes, fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.

This story struck me as familiar. There's a midrash that describes Adam Harishon in exactly the same way:

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos.Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it saysAnd He took from his sides,[2] as it says, [3]R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world. He created [Man] from the east to the west. From where do we learn [that man was created from the east to the west]? As it says,  of the earth to the other]? As it says [4]And from where do we learn that before.[5] And from where [do we learn that man was created from one end Adam filled the space of the whole earth? As it says, [6]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it.

There are so many interesting things about this.
  • When I learned this midrash, no one mentioned Aristophanes. Like me, most frum people learn the midrash and have no idea that they are reading something that originated in Greek philosophy.  
  • It's yet another example that shows that the Jewish communities of the past were influenced by the cultures around them, so much so that elements of those cultures made it into what many people consider the Divinely-inspired, transcendentally meaningful explanations of Tanach.
  • It proves that extant ideas have been read back into tanach. Plato's Symposium predates this midrash by six hundred years, and  two-faced Adam is brought up by Resh Lakish, who had been immersed in Roman culture. There's little doubt that the idea came from the Symposium. Yet they manage to find proof-texts to hang the idea on.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all, the amoraim quoted in the midrash didn't get the joke! Aristophanes was being deliberately ridiculous to make a point, and these amoraim took him so seriously that 1700 years later, little kids in yeshiva learning parshas Bereishis learn that Adam was originally an androgynous two-sided creature.

It's also notable that in Aristophanes' version, there are three types of creatures, double-sided male, double-sided female, and male-female. After separation, each was motivated by love to seek it's other half, and Aristophanes says that this is all good, love is a gift from the gods, and we should leave it at that. The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females. Maybe because it doesn't fit with the narrative in Bereishis about Adam and Chava, maybe because of its positive attitude towards homosexuality, or both. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Metaphysical Amiratzim

I recently heard an interview with James Flynn, the namesake and discoverer of the Flynn Effect. While doing research on intelligence, Flynn noticed that IQ tests have to be renormed every few years. Tables for scoring IQ tests are derived by administering the test to thousands of subjects. For convenience (it makes the math easier), the average result is given a score of 100. IQ tests measure people's performance not against some objective standard of intelligence, but against the average performance of people in their cohort, the people in their age group in their era. The tests have to be periodically renormed because average scores keep drifting upwards.

What this means is that if someone were tested today and scored with the tables used in the '40s, he would score as a genius! It's nice to think that we're all getting smarter, but reversing that experiment exposes an absurdity. If we were to take a current IQ test back in time and test someone from our grandparents' generation as a young man or woman, they would score as profoundly retarded. Obviously, the generation that created the first computers and jets was not made up of people who were not intelligent enough to  care for themselves.

So what was happening here? Flynn found that in some areas that IQ tests measured, like math skills and vocabulary, there was little to no change in the scores between cohorts. What changed was people's performance on sections that required abstract thinking. People kept getting better at it. The rising scores didn't reflect a change in people's intelligence, it reflected the diffusion through our culture of a particular way of thinking. People in the past tended to think concretely, about things that effected them directly. Not because they were intellectually incapable of thinking abstractly, but because they had no reason to, and were unlikely to ever encounter abstract modes of thinking. They didn't have the intellectual tools for it.

I had heard all of this before. What caught my attention in the interview was when Flynn pointed out that there had always been a small minority of people throughout history who could think abstractly, and listed talmudists among his examples. Could this explain the gemara's contempt for the am haaretz? Imagine yourself as an amora, intelligent, educated, and so comfortable with thinking in abstractions that you don't even realize that's what you're doing. You interact with a farmer who is illiterate, ignorant, and, it seems to you, unable to even think. Sure, he can design and build buildings and farming equipment, come up with clever ways to increase his crop yields and keep away pests, and other practical, hands-on things. But ask him to apply logic to a pair of pesukim to see how they are similar and what we can learn about what is discussed in one from what is discussed in the other, and he's completely lost. It's not just that he can't do it, he doesn't even understand what it is you want him to do.  Of course you think he's an idiot.

The farmer isn't an idiot. He's just lacking a particular set of tools. It's like asking a guy who's never seen a screwdriver to assemble a piece of furniture, and concluding he's mechanically inept because he thinks the pointy things with ridges are badly-made nails. He won't be able to put the thing together. He won't even understand what it is you want him to do. You hit nails, you don't turn them. Everyone knows that! But show him what a screwdriver is, explain to him how screws work, and give him a chance to practice, and he could end up working for IKEA.

This all came to mind over Yom Tov when I saw this sign at a keilim mikvah in Brooklyn.

My initial reaction was to ridicule whoever had written the sign. Tevilas Keilim is not a metaphysical or mystical concept? You don't get much more metaphysical and mystical than dunking clean utensils in dirty magic sky-water to wash off the taint of possible involvement in worship of other gods. Here, in red and white, was proof that the frum community was made up of theological morons, philosophical amiratzim who don't recognize a metaphysical ritual when it stares them in the face.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they weren't stupid. They just didn't have the intellectual tools to see their own religion as metaphysics. And why should they? The wider questions of theology and metaphysics, and the similarities and mechanics of different religions and mythos didn't affect their day-to-day lives. To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic."  The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag. These same people, complacent in their ignorance of theological terms and lacking the ability to recognize a mystical ritual meant to affect metaphysical impurity might, if given the tools, become adept at thinking about religion.

Perhaps that is another reason to put together a book explaining why people might conclude Orthodox Judaism isn't true. To provide the tools and motivation to even the devoutly religious members of Orthodox society to develop an appreciation of a different way of thinking about their religion. One that understands that "metaphysical"  can include not only those things they consider esoteric but also things that they take for granted, like tummah, avodah zara, and God.

That's almost certainly a grandiose overstatement of the effect of anything I might write, but I'll take motivation where I can get it.

On a related note, I have been working on an outline for the book I proposed a few months ago. It's slow, but so far I have a sixteen page outline, and it continues to grow. When I finish the outline I'll clean it up and post the basic format (Chapters, headings, subheadings, specific topics) for suggestions.