Thursday, June 30, 2005

Absolute Significance

"I'm just wondering if you ever see any meaning or significance behind anything, or if you think that every thing throughout history is 100% attributable to random, natural causes."

There's a few issues I have with the question itself. One is that you equate randomness with natural causes. Many things are natural and are very far from being random. They mean different things. It's natural that gravity pulls things down. But that's not a random thing that can happen. It's not like stuff could just as easily go sideways or upwards.

I also note that you find that natural causes is incompatible with meaning or significance. Again, that too is not necessarily true. I find much of human and natural history to be significant.
What you are asking about is an objective super-meaning for why things happen. And you should focus on what that even means. Is something only meaningful if it is God's will? Can you rightly care about something that God may not? Do you think God cares how you do in school? Or if you're skillful in sports?

Think of those guys playing in the World Series. I'm sure they care a lot about who wins. And thousands (millions) of fans feel strongly about it too. After one side wins they will, of course, thank God for it. But does God really care about that? Do you think He puts an active interest in the Yankees?

Things are meaningful only in context. As a human I have interest and I find meaning in human history as I see how it effected and effects my own life and existence. As a Jew I find Jewish history even more meaningful. And so on. But God? The whole universe would be His creation. It might be entertaining for Him, but what reason has He for giving anything that happens within His creation special meaning?

Suppose you write a novel. It is your creation. Do you give any character or event special meaning, that has a real meaning outside the story? Nothing is "really" meaningful, it's just what value you give to it.

If God exists, I accept that it might be possible for Him to have special interests. Maybe He likes humankind and has tweaked the story of history here and again to get to a situation that He finds meaningful. But do I have to find the same things meaningful? They are just meaningful inasmuch as God gives value to it. Maybe God tweaked a bit of the Universe a billion light years away to create a cool black hole in an unusual arrangement. That black hole might be interesting, but it has no meaning to me.

The question of "meaning" is complex. If everything is meaningful - then nothing is meaningful. Because in our daily lives nobody gives equal note of everything that happens. Oh, you dropped your pen. Then you picked it up. Is that meaningful? I don’t think so. But the day your first child is born, I’m sure you will imbue that event with much significance. I don’t think one can speak of an absolute meaning for anything. Because even as I described above, even God’s interests are only meaningful for Him.

Your question is really about whether I view the universe as having an interested creator or operator who has shaped events in a intentional way. Sometimes I like to imagine it that way, but I do not see any evidence of this. The world appears to operate by simple natural laws and does not have either "built-in" events or miraculous intervening happenings.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

R' Slifkin's Speech

I went to R' Slifkin's speech tonight. On The Terror of Dinosaurs. I felt like I got to meet all these famous blogger personalities that I read so much about but never see in real life. Gil Student too! I knew that name years before I was even a skeptic and I thought it was a pseudonym. I mean, an internet scholar named "Student." Come on! Now which one was Godol Hador?

I think Slifkin is a pretty clever guy (had no idea he was British though) and he is a strong believer in both science and Torah - he just goes grasping at straws to reconcile the two. I mean, he goes to Kabbalah of all places to explain the problems in Genesis while admitting that he has no clue what Kabbalah is and that he "isn't really into it."

But still, an A for effort. Though it would likely be better had he not been so obviously evasive about so many topics. Oh, evolution, too complex. The "alleged Abraham," out of scope.

And he was occasionally factually incorrect about things too. Not just "most" dinosaurs were terrestrials - all dinosaurs were. The big old animals in the sea were called ichthyosaurs. And carbon dating is never used to date dinosaur remains, C14 dating is only accurate back a few thousand years. It is other forms of radiometric dating which are used for dinosaur remains.

But even so, I liked his presentation, I thought his arguments were interesting, if not convincing, and I think he's very brave to bring up such issues so directly and openly to a population who still thinks the mabul is a good explanation for anything. (Though he was still too chicken to talk about how unlikely a global flood actually was.)

At the very least he's getting people to think about these things.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Don't Think!

This past Shabbos we read Parashat Shelach and within it we quote the last paragraph of Shema, the commandments dealing with tzitzit. One passage, Num. 15:39 goes "It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray."

That last segment is focused on by the Artscroll Big Blue Edition that every shul has. And I quote, "We are enjoined to avoid any thought that could entice us to uproot a fundamental of the Torah. Human intelligence is limited and not everyone can ascertain the truth, so that a person can destroy his world if he follows his random thoughts. For example, if a person ruminates on whether or not there is a God, whether the prophecies are true, or whether the Torah is of heavenly origin - and he does not have the degree of knowledge and judgement to find the clear truth - he will be opening himself to heretical beliefs. Therefore, the Torah commands that one not explore after heart and eye lest he come to stray from belief in God (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos)."

In other words, don't think because you might think wrong. Good advice for an orthodoxy afraid of disagreement but bad for an effort of intellectual growth and understanding. To grow intellectually, the individual needs to understand that there's nothing horrible with being wrong but that through being wrong and discovery of why it is wrong, a stronger and better understanding is reached. Only things with something to hide need to rely on policing thought.

The Rabbi of my shul spoke about this as well. He said that people should follow things only through their faith and intellect and not because of emotional or physical reasons. And that I agree with - minus the faith. Faith is largely discordant with intellect. Indeed, faith could be called the quieting of the intellect. Don't think, just believe.

So I thought about the Frum Skeptics. Those who disbelieve for reasons on intellect and not due to emotional or physical reasons. They are following their intellect. They are not following their heart and they are not following their eyes. They're following their brain. They do not think "random thoughts" either. Their thoughts make sense and are in accordance with the evidence and are usually far more structured than the average believer.

I agree though, one should not become a skeptic simply because they want to boink the hot girl down the block or because they "feel" that Islam has something to offer, but one should only become skeptical through study and rational reasoning. Not only do the heart and eye people look selfish and foolish but their arguments are always weak. I only respect the rational skeptic. Not the angry skeptic. Not the hippie skeptic. Not the greedy or horny or lazy skeptic. Just the person who comes to his conclusions with a mind for truth and with rational reasoning at his side.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Judaism Deals with Death Right

Much of how Jews deal with death is very to the point and meaningful. There is no glittery multi-thousand coffin-deluxe in tradition. At most, simple pine. Rich or poor, we are all equals in death.

I also like the way in which the body is left covered. Open casket funerals are so fake and disrespectful. You need to paint a person's body up after death so people can stare at it? That's crap. The dead don't need to impress anyone.

I even appreciate the way family members and friends are the ones who actually do the burying and not the mexican workers at the cemetery.

Sitting shiva too is a great way to have the community show their support and it forces the individual to face the fact of death of a loved one and deal with it in an emotionally healthy way. I think there really is a lot of wisdom there.

Traditions to Keep

"I am always curious about which rituals people would keep for their own reasons. Would you be willing to share any other mitzvot or traditions that you would still follow, without anyone telling you to but because they are meaningful to you?"

My big ones are kashrut, Shabbos, and a host of traditional holiday stuff.

Kashrut, even if Mis-nagid says it is a social control, which it may be, is still a big aspect of our Jewish heritage and does have positive effects (as well as acknowledged negative ones) like a stronger Jewish community.

Shabbos is tradition to the core and I also really like the idea of a day without worries. People don't realize how nice a thing it is to not have to worry about making sure you have all sorts of "important" stuff in your pockets before you leave the house. It's a small example, but that I don't need to take my keys and wallet and cell phone with me where ever I go Shabbos afternoon is incredibly liberating.

Besides, I also think a family meal or two each week is important for obvious reasons and the entire air of an official day of rest takes the cake. I get all my best reading done on Shabbos.

Holidays are important as far as culture is concerned and most holidays would not feel "real" to me if they didn't come along withdoing traditional events. I _like_ building my succah. And I like the seder. I even appreciate the concept of fasting on days of real pain for our people and gives the day a sense of importance and our connection to history. (It's sad that most fast days are taken up with stupid discussions about "Are you still fasting?" and "I fast easiest when..." and all the crap about the actual stupid fact off asting and never about why we fast. People don't get it.) I can't imagine not fasting on Tisha B'Av.

Holidays are important.

Monday, June 20, 2005

How much Gemara can you learn in a year?

I made a comment the other day in front of a few yeshivah guys saying that if a guy goes to Israel for a whole year for the express purpose of learning Gemara I would expect him to learn around half of Shas. But they said I was way off and a couple even got upset at me for even suggesting it.

Now, half of Shas is less than 3000 pages (1500 dafim). If a person is taking a whole year to study it why is that such a huge task? Suppose it's not for a whole year but for ten months (typical length of time for a guy who comes home for Pesach) which is about 40 weeks long and he studies for maybe 50 hours a week. Not very strenuous, especially as learning Gemara doesn't exactly require physical exertion. That calculates into 2000 hours of learning time.

Is it so absurd to think that a dedicated person can't finish at least one daf (double page) an hour? For Daf Yomi they manage to run through it in about ten minutes. Granted, the depth of a Daf Yomi is hardly an optimum for learning, but not all pages are equally long and much of the Gemara are stories which really don't require a whole lot of concentration. The whole of Shas does not read like Bava Metzia. I really don't think a total rate of a daf an hour is so outrageous.

And especially since I gave a rather easy schedule. If I were to take the year off to study Talmud, I would go to it full gear and do 14 and 16 hour days. I have to admit that I probably wouldn't deal much with the Aramaic though, except for important and choice terms. Sorry, but I want to know the content, not learn how to understand a dead language. I'd try to finish Shas entirely. I mean, I'd have a whole year dedicated to just that purpose.

It just seems to me that those who go to Israel and come back after only having finished a mesechet or two have basically taken the year off. I certainly am not very impressed.

I also think that those yeshivah guys who got upset at the very idea that I suggested only responded so to preserve their collective egos. It hardly sheds them in good light if someone asserts that they went to Israel and wasted most of their time instead of doing their express reason for going in the first place.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Interesting Talmudic Biology of Niddah 31

After my previous post where I just used the Gemara as a reference, I decided to read more of the interesting discussions found on that page of Niddah 31. Take a look at what I found:

Our Rabbis taught: During the first three months the embryo occupies the lowest chamber, during the middle ones it occupies the middle chamber and during the last months it occupies the uppermost chamber; and when its time to emerge arrives it turns over and then emerges, and this is the cause of the woman's pains.

What chambers are the Rabbis talking about? The embryo/fetus sits in the same uterus the entire time once it sets itself into the uterine wall in the first few days of pregnancy. And the flipping over of the fetus isn't what causes the women pregnancy pain, that's the contractions which cause the cervix to dilate. And that happens regardless, if the infant flips or not.

The pains of a female birth are more intense than those of a male birth. R. Eleazar further observed, 'What is the Scriptural proof for this? When I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth, it does not say 'dwelt' but 'curiously wrought'. Why are the pains of a female birth greater than those of a male birth? — The female emerges in the position she assumes during intercourse and the male emerges in the position he assumes during intercourse. The former, therefore, turns her face upwards while the latter need not turn his face.

Scriptural proof for a fiction? Neither gender gives the woman a more painful birth compared to the other. And when birth occurs there is no difference in the baby's position. In any normal birth the baby's face will first be turned to the side so to fit through the woman's hips and will then quickly turn upwards. This is true for both boys and girls.

Our Rabbis taught: During the first three months marital intercourse is injurious to the woman and it is also injurious to the child. During the middle ones it is injurious to the woman but beneficial for the child. During the last months it is beneficial for both the woman and the child, since on account of it the child becomes well-formed and of strong vitality.

Modern health professionals agree that sex is not dangerous at all during a normal pregnancy. In fact, if anything, it is only during the last few weeks that sex should be avoided because there may be chemicals in the semen which will stimulate contractions leading to a slightly early birth.

His father supplies the semen of the white substance out of which are formed the child's bones, sinews, nails, the brain in his head and the white in his eye; his mother supplies the semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair, blood and the black of his eye;

This is just complete nonsense. Both parents provide half the genetic material which is responsible for all the anatomical structures of the baby. It's also the mother who supplies all the "building materials" for the baby and through which everything is made.

R. Isaac citing R. Ammi further stated: A woman conceives only immediately before her menstrual period, for it is said, Behold I was brought forth in iniquity; but R. Johanan stated: A woman conceives only immediately after her ritual immersion, for it is said, And in cleansing did my mother conceive me.

The menstrual period is the beginning count of the menstrual cycle. Then, according to Halacha, the girl must wait five days before she checks if the bleeding stops and then waits another seven days until she dunks in the mikvah. After that, day 12, she can have sex until the next menstrual period. According to science, a woman can become pregnant only during ovulation which occurs, on a 28 day schedule, generally on days 11-14.

So can a woman become pregnant after immersion on day 12? Sure, that's smack in the middle of ovulation. R. Johanan is right. R. Isaac though is 100% wrong, proof text or no proof text.

Orgasmic Sex Determination

Take a look at the Rashi for Genesis 46:15. Rashi is concerned with why the Torah splits up the sons and daughters of Leah and Yaakov. The sons are described as belonging to Leah and Dinah to Yaakov. So he comes and says that "isha mazraas techila, yoledes zachar, ish mazria techila, yoledes nekeiva" meaning that if a woman gives 'seed' first, she gives birth to a boy, if the man gives seed first, she gives birth to a girl.

As it is well known that women don't have sperm, but the female sexual secretions was thought to be the female equivalent of sperm, what this means here is that if the woman orgasms first during coitus the conceived child will be male, if the man is the first to reach orgasm then the child will be female. Of course, this is highly unlikely and which partner reaches climax first has no bearing whatsoever (or perhaps an extremely marginal bearing) on the gender of the child. It is very possible for a woman to conceive a child of either gender without any orgasm. Some women never have orgasms, yet they do have male babies. But we can't fault Rashi though, he was dealing with Medieval theories of biology and we can't expect him to be an expert.

However, it just so happens that Rashi didn't just make this up himself, nor was it something he picked up from the goyishe society around him. This comes straight from the Talmud.

See if you will, Masechet Niddah Daf 31a. And I quote:

"R. Isaac citing R. Ammi stated: If the woman emits her semen first she bears a male child; if the man emits his semen first she bears a female child; for it is said, 'If a woman emits semen and bear a man-child.'"

That segment that the Gemara refers to is from Leviticus 12:2 where it is discussing the impurity which befalls the woman who gives birth to a male. It uses that phrase. How you can derive from that it is the orgasm which decides the child's gender is anyone's guess. In my pragmatic eyes it just seems like a turn of phrase to indicate that she has conceived and gives birth. But the Talmud regularly makes much from little.

Anway, so the Gemara continues:

"Our Rabbis taught: At first it used to be said that 'if the woman emits her semen first she will bear a male, and if the man emits his semen first she will bear a female', but the Sages did not explain the reason, until R. Zadok came and explained it: These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-aram, with his daughter Dinah, Scripture thus ascribes the males to the females and the females to the males."

And so we have gone full circle. R. Zadok takes us back to Genesis 46:15 to explain this strange exegesis.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Too Many Answers

I once heard from someone recently as they were explaining the merits of Orthodoxy in that we have so many mepharshim and they all give so many answers to all sorts of questions. If you have a question, you can look up a dozen famous rabbis and you can learn their opinions. And if you don't like one answer, there's always another for you to consider.

What does a certain line in Devarim mean? Well, Rashi says it's one thing. But the Ramban says it is just the opposite. And the Ran says something totally different. You can accept any of these and be in complete disagreement with another Jew and still be considered fully Orthodox.

Now, that seems like a great merit of Orthodoxy, seriously. How many other religious orthodoxies allow such direct disagreements? Usually there is a standard and any deviation from that standard is just that, a deviation. Different views of the same issues are not considered equally valid.

However, looking at it from the harsh view of science. How in the world can any curious Jew know if their view is the true one if all sorts of different views are equally valid? There ought to be just one correct answer for any one question. Having opposites being equally true makes scholarship a joke.

This is related to one reason why string theory is having such problems. It has wonderful equations that can theoretically give us the answer for fundamentally why the universe is at it is. But the problem is that it has too many solutions! There are a plethora of answers that the equations can solve for but having so many answers makes string theory less potent, not more because then we have no idea which answer is the true one. How can the theory of everything have a multitude of answers?

How can the Truth from God have multiple equally true and contradictory explanations?

Creative Customs

My response to the Wolf to how and why Judaism has any meaning if the foundations are not factually true:

If we can turn some of the best things of Judaism and find new and independent reasons for perpetuating them then we don't need Mattan Torah or God commanding them to be done.

You think people in America celebrate Christmas and Holloween because of religious reasons? Some do. But the rest?

A common custom of Shavuous is to eat milchik meals. You could go through three dozen people in shul and not come upon one who knew why.

There is value in Judaism. And many aspects of it can and will survive even when the original reasons fall. As Judaism is today very few rituals are carried on as they were originally meant. Reconstructionist Judaism is really just a movement along these same lines.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ezekiel's Vision

We just read Yechezkel 1, (Ezekiel 1) this past Shavuous. If you've never read it in it's naked translation, here it is:

1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
2 On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin- 3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him.
4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, 5 and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 13 The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome. 23 Under the expanse their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body. 24 When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
25 Then there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 26 Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

So, I figure there are a few ways to explain this. One, it actually was God and some angels and wild moving spheres. Two, aliens, duh. Three, Ezekiel has a mental disorder. Four, Ezekiel had a little too much "strong ale." Five, someone made this whole thing up from nothing.

I have no evidence for any of this, it's all speculation. But for some strange reason I just doubt the whole God coming in a vision with a firmament with four-headed angels and spinning wheels. My bet is that Ezekiel toked a little too much that night.

Hey, anyone with the right chemical balance can see Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds too.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Problem of Evil

This is a paper I wrote for class. So if it reads like a school paper, you'll know why.

The problem of evil in philosophical and theological circles is the logical conundrum surrounding the facts of our universe and the attempts to correspond them with the hypothesized existence of God. God is considered by many theologians and billions of believers to be a perfect being. He is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent which means that He is all knowing, all-powerful and only wants the best for all inhabitants of the universe. If this being were to create a universe we would expect it to be perfect as a perfect creator ought to make perfect creations. We would expect to see a world full of wonder and light, a veritable paradise for all the denizens who lived there.

However, this is a far cry from the world which we live in. We see murderers and rapists on the news each night at six. We see nations at war. We see tsunamis and earthquakes killing hundreds of thousands of people. We see infants born without legs, without faces, some without hope of living out the week. We see a world of nature where each animal must kill the other to survive. We see evil things everywhere we look. How can a perfect creator make such an imperfect mess? That is the Problem of Evil.

It is a famous problem and was put succinctly by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

The most convincing response for the typical theist to this issue was the one proposed by John Hick, a contemporary Christian theologian and philosopher. While not the most original, he argued that the traditional theistic God has other interests besides the simple pleasure of mankind. The universe was not made for our pleasure but for the higher purpose of what he called "soul-making."

The first thing that Hick argues to explain the evil actions of men is the aspect of free will which each human being has. Every person chooses through his own power whether to do good or bad. Good choices merit "soul-making" while bad choices do not. This higher goal of "soul-making" has the necessary logical cost of free will and subsequently must allow some poor choices to be made. Were God to make a "perfect" world where free will did not exist and everyone was compelled to act well, choices and acts would be valueless as they would all be mere pulls of the strings by God. The individual could get no credit and no souls would be made.

Hick also explains natural evils, which are those disasters from nature, by saying that a soul is also "made" by individuals through their free will to emerge valiantly from suffering and overcome difficulties. Like moral character, a soul is not just given, it needs to be built. God allows natural evils so that the moral qualities of character can be built through performing actions of kindness, generosity, courage, and so on. However, in a "perfect" world without any suffering none of these actions can possibly be made. Who can one be generous to if nobody wants or needs a thing?

Evil exists so that people will have opportunities to use their free will to choose to do good. Giving charity to those less fortunate is a "soul-making" exercise but would be impossible to do in a world of paradise because there could not be any poor people who would need aid. So people grapple with the difficulties of this world in order for them to be rewarded in the afterlife as they earn eternal life in heaven.

There are, of course, difficulties with this response of Hick’s as there are with all theodicies. One major point has to do with the fact of the amount of evil which we see in the world. If evil is necessary for character growth then why does there seem to be so much evil in excess compared to what any person would need to grow through. Not enough "soul-making" could have been made if thirty thousand people perished from the tsunami rather than the actual number many times that?

Another major point is that there are some cases of suffering where no growth at all is made. An unknown drifter gets lost in the woods and starves to death. Nobody knows he’s missing and nobody even goes looking for him or cares that he’s lost. Nobody’s character was built by this episode. No soul was "made." For what then is the reason behind such apparently gratuitous evil?

Besides instances of zero growth, what about those instances of negative growth? A person might take advantage of a starving person by making them buy food at an inflated price. Who’s soul was "made" in such a scenario? Such suffering appears to be incapable of being lined up with the "soul-making" evil of Hick.

There are also objections to Hick’s claim that free will must also have the necessary consequence that some individuals will use it for evil. Hick agrees that God fits the traditional properties of omniscience, omnipotence and omni-benevolence. Focusing on the attribute of omniscience for a moment, it is taken to mean that God knows everything that has, is and will be. As such, it would make sense to say that before any individual is created by God and put on Earth, God already knows if the person will act good or bad. Assuming that such knowledge does not preclude free will itself (which is an argument in it of itself) could not God simply opt not to put the bad choosers on Earth? God maintains free will but only creates those who would choose well. These good choosers are not puppets nor are they compelled to be good. Being good is just the way they chose, using their own free will, to be. Removing bad choosers from the equation should not negate the free will of the good choosers.

Yet, besides all of these valid objections, there remains a major fundamental objection to his argument. In order for Hick to explain evil he must then hypothesize all sorts of other unproven concepts. Not only must God exist, but humans must have free will. Not only must God exist and human have free will but humans must also have souls. Not only must God exist and human have souls but those souls must also have the capacity for eternal life. Not only must God, human souls, and the afterlife exist, but God must also have a special interest and a master plan for these human souls for eternal life for which he planned and constructed the universe for and so on.

All these additional unsubstantiated actors lead to a more complex problem than we started with. If we were to appeal to Occam’s razor, it would surely cut down such increased entities. In order for Hick to explain how God’s existence is coherent with our imperfect world, he must speculate about the existence of all these other factors which are just as, if not more so, unproven than God.

However, despite all these difficulties, as far as the typical theist is concerned they can all be easily laid aside. The traditional theist comes into the issue with a set of assumed beliefs about the world. Of course God has a master plan, of course people have eternal souls, etc. For the traditional theist, Hick’s argument is simply the logical conclusion of what their chosen religion already explicates. Perhaps for the skeptic the whole "soul-making" master plan is hard to swallow, but just the opposite for the traditional theist.

Essentially it is for this reason, and this reason alone, for why Hick’s arguments are so often used by traditional theists to bolster their beliefs of the world. The argument itself is wholly speculative but when faith comes into play that is often swept under the rug. Independent sources of evidence are not necessary, just as long as the world view itself is more or less internally consistent.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Fear of Disbelief

"If it is a risky thing to reserve any belief in a god until we have reasonable evidence for it, it is either unfair to our generation (which has far more knowledge of science than ever before) or the Torah's theme is simply something that never happened. A god that is described as removing the "existence" question would only be just to give us that same assurance in every generation. If I am a good person, and I simply don't cognitively accept any belief without evidence, and god never gives me the benefit of that evidence that he allegedly gave to people from 4 millennia ago, what do I have to fear for simply reserving any idea of faith?"

You should have nothing to fear in reserving faith. (Hey, I do it too so it must be alright ;-) )

But seriously, like Galileo, I think that if God exists and has personal care in each one of us, I don't think He would give us the power of the mind but without the intention to have us use it. In fact, I also believe that it is the skeptics who look for rational grounds to believe in things and sweat to form wise views who would be most valued by God.

But then again, that is likely just my own projected bias.

Anyway, my point from before has little to do with what God will do to those who fail to believe, but what kind of life you will live based on what you believe. The strict skeptic can really not believe in anything at all, but what kind of life is that? And at the other extreme the gullible cult member will have no life either.

I think the strict atheistic view is small and closes the mind to a world much greater and exotic than what we're familiar with. Even the agnostic who refuses to believe things because there is no evidence loses out on conceptual speculation of such possibilities. The typical agnostic feels comfortable in their worldview as they straddle the fence, but straddling the fence does limit things one would take into consideration because one becomes loyal to one's agnosticism.

Refusing to take a side is a side in itself.

I'm not arguing for faith here, but an open-mindedness and a non-loyalty to any one view. When some evidence comes your way, don't just stay agnostic because it's "safe" and don't automatically argue on your "traditional" side.

If there's nothing to fear from sometimes being a strong atheist then it should be immeasurably more true in that there should be nothing to fear from being a semi-credible believer sometimes too.

Genuine Options

"I'm honestly very uncomfortable with the 'let's just adopt a deity until something better comes along' approach."

As William James would say it, then that's not a genuine option for you and I wouldn't recommend it.

But as I see it, neither side has all the evidence for it and I see keeping the question open as simply a desire not to be wrong. So as the evidence is not conclusive either way and I see both as genuine options I can only rely on non-evidential reasoning to decide.

This hardly means the discussion is over and that we should stop looking for higher truths, but it does justify having belief in something that the evidence does not strictly support.

Keep in mind that one can just as easily use this reasoning to support the atheistic approach as well.

A Little Too Rational...

"And thus, in the absence of evidence, the rational position is absence of belief."

Is it? Maybe for everyday matters that don't really effect your life that may be true. Is there life on Mars? No conclusive evidence for it and I can be neutral my entire life about the proposition and not be bothered at all.

But the question of God and a higher meaning to our existence is not some inconsequential factoid. You may be betting your entire life's (and afterlife's) mindset and actions based on how you answer this question.

If you're stuck in the middle of a war and you don't know which side is the "good" side, the rational thing is hardly to stay neutral but to pick a side and hope for the best. Because being neutral means you're gonna get attacked from both sides.

God's existence is not just an intellectual debate.
"The analogy fails because in your example, you know that there are armies, but do not know which one to pick. In our case, there's no reason to think there even are armies. Perhaps if there were two gods, and you had to choose between them."

The analogy does not fail. You have two concepts of the world. These two concepts do exist. And choosing which you will follow has great effects on your life.

"God's existence is not *even* an intellectual debate. There's no evidence, so the babble is meaningless mental masturbation."

I think the question over whether the universe has an element of intelligent design in it or not is very debatable. I used to scoff at the idea of the anthropic principle, but the fact is that the physical constants and properties of the universe are in such an amazing balance it is hard to imagine them not being intentionally made that way. The typical atheistic response to this is that there could be an infinite number of unverifiable alternate universes which do not have life supporting physical laws - but that's more of a stretch than believing them designed. There is only one universethat we know about and we happen to be there.

If one concludes that the universe shows design then one might wonder what the designer might be and for what reasons it had for shaping the world.

It could be we just don't know enough about how the universe began to understand why it is that way, but there is support for a non-atheistic conclusion.
"'I don't know' is not a valid reason for a 'therefore.' 'I don't know why the universe looks the way it does' no more supports a designer than it does a multiverse. It's a total non sequitur. There is no support for any conclusion other than 'I don't know.' Because it starts there, it ends there."

Yes, you can intellectually conclude with the "I don't know" response, but these questions require answers.

Leaving the question open isn't a bold response to the issue, it's hiding from it. In searching for truth we can risk being wrong, if you just wish to avoid error then you can simply not believe anything at all.

Far better to go into battle and risk being wounded than to not fight the good fight at all.
"*Real* answers, not "it's magic." I was not suggesting to be *satisfied* with "I don't know." On the contrary, that dissatisfaction is a source of intellectual progress, and acrucial drive for the scientific worldview. Where I protest is when your need for understanding pushes you to believe something that outstrips the evidence. "I don't know" is not the end of questioning, but the end of answering."

Yes, generally we should wait for the evidence before we speculate. But life is short and it's far better to believe _something_ is true then to live forever in limbo.

Being proven wrong or changing your mind later on is not the end of the world.

Can anyone say Clifford vs James?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Israeli Day Parade Experience

I went to the Israeli Day Parade this past Sunday and, of course, I was wearing white and blue. Did you see me on the parkside at about 73rd Street? ;-)

As people were marching down I had a whole conversation with a friend of mine who came with me about the different views on Gush Katif. He wanted to get an orange t-shirt, but only balked because it cost ten bucks.

Anyway, I think people can comment on whatever they want but also keep in mind that they have no say in what Israel actually eventually decides to do. I also happen approve of the plan.
So I was discussing the issue with my friend and I pretty much showed him the other side of the issue. And while I don't think I changed his mind, I do believe he sees that the opposition does have a justified position.

But my main issue with the parade was this friend of my friend who came along too. She voiced her disgust at all the less than Orthodox groups who marched for Israel and said that "they were for everything 'we' are against."

I felt like explaining at her that the Jewish people have never been of only one type. There have always been sects and discontents and different views. From the henotheists of ancient times to the monotheism of the Prophets to the Pharisees and Sadducees to the rationalists and to the Kabbalists to the Kariates and to the Hasidics, Judaism has never been of only one type. Their type of Judaism is just as valid as her's is.

But intolerance is, unfortunately, widespread in Orthodoxy.

There is still much merit in Judaism

You can always keep in mind that the Torah is the world's first example of a legal society in which there is one Law for all. Even the king's powers are not absolute and must defer to the law.

Justice is also a traditional and historical aspect of Judaism. "Justice, Justice you shall pursue." While the Torah may not appear just in many ways to our modern ears, you must recognize it for what it is as a first step in the right direction.

The search for Truth is also a historical aspect of Judaism. Judaism _is_ centered around learning. And I mean real learning, not machers in kollel. If you've ever read books like Job, you'd realize that the Jews of old weren't afraid to broach some touchy topics. And again, while some parts in Judaism (especially parts of modern Judaism) seem to be against the accruement of knowledge, it is still a strong part of our Jewish heritage.

If you can understand our ancestors as a people who were breaking out of the barbarity of the ancient world and searching for truth and justice - the Torah need not be seen as a book of stories and fairy tales, but of life lessons and moral teachings.

As opposed to the Orthodox who see the Torah as the end - we can see it as the beginning of the search and conquest of understanding and goodness for humanity.

In this way it deserves our respect and for us to continue our ancestors' traditions to perpetuate such ideals.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Afflicted by an Idea

I think this article serves to shed some light on phenomena like those Holy Rollers (Pentecostals) as well as other cases of "shared" supernatural experiences.

Farewell to hysteria

Jean-Martin Charcot vigorously supported and defended the theory of cerebral localizations in man; several of his outstanding courses dealt with this theory and its application to Jacksonian epilepsy (John Hughlings Jackson, 1835-1911 – Jackson was one of the early appointments to the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, Queen Square, London, now the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and will be profiled in a later issue of Headlines), aphasia, and Beard’s neurasthenia (George Miller Beard, 1839-1883). Charcot believed that he had discovered a new disease he called "hystero-epilepsy," a disorder of mind and brain combining features of hysteria and epilepsy. The patients displayed a variety of symptoms, including convulsions, contortions, fainting, and transient impairment of consciousness.

Joseph Babinski, his student, however, decided that Charcot had invented rather than discovered hystero-epilepsy. The patients had come to the hospital with vague complaints of distress and demoralization. Charcot had persuaded them that they were victims of hystero-epilepsy and should join the others under his care. Charcot's interest in their problems, the encouragement of attendants, and the example of others on the same ward prompted patients to accept Charcot's view of them and eventually to display the expected symptoms. These symptoms resembled epilepsy, Babinski believed that a municipal decision to house epileptic and hysterical patients together (both having "episodic" conditions) was the cause of the condition. The hysterical patients, already vulnerable to suggestion and persuasion, were continually subjected to life on the ward and to Charcot's neuropsychiatric examinations. They began to imitate the epileptic attacks they repeatedly witnessed.

Babinski eventually won the argument. He persuaded Charcot that doctors can induce a variety of physical and mental disorders, especially in young, inexperienced, emotionally troubled women. There was no "hystero-epilepsy." These patients were afflicted not by a disease but by an idea. With this understanding, Charcot and Babinski devised a two-stage treatment consisting of isolation and counter suggestion.

First, "hystero-epileptic" patients were transferred to the general wards of the hospital and kept apart from one another. Thus they were separated from everyone else who was behaving in the same way and also from staff members who had been induced by sympathy or investigatory zeal to show great interest in the symptoms. The success of this first step was remarkable. Babinski and Charcot were reminded of the rare but impressive epidemic of fainting, convulsions, and wild screaming in convents and boarding schools that ended when the group of afflicted persons was broken up and scattered.

The second step, counter-suggestion, was designed to give the patients a view of themselves that would persuade them to abandon their symptoms. Dramatic counter-suggestions, such as electrical stimulation of "paralysed" muscles, proved to be unreliable. The most effective technique was simply ignoring the hysterical behaviour and concentrating on the present circumstances of these patients. They were suffering from many forms of stress, including sexual feelings and traumas, economic fears, religious conflicts, and a conviction (perhaps correct) that they were being exploited or neglected by their families. In some cases their distress had been provoked by a mental or physical illness. The hysterical symptoms obscured the underlying emotional conflicts and traumas. How trivial a sexual fear seemed to a patient in whom convulsive attacks produced paralysis and temporary blindness every day!

Staff members expressed their withdrawal of interest in hysterical behaviour subtly, in such words as, "You're in recovery now and we will give you some physiotherapy, but let us concentrate on the home situation that may have brought this on." These face-saving counter-suggestions reduced a patient's need to go on producing hystero-epileptic symptoms in order to certify that her problems were real. The symptoms then gradually withered from lack of nourishing attention. Patients began to take a more coherent and disciplined approach to their problems and found a resolution more appropriate than hysterical displays.

Charcot removed his patients from the special wards when he realised his mistake.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

On the other hand...

"if understand you correctly, you for your own reasons can't/don't want to believe that life/existance has meaning outside of the meaning we assign to it so you live in a framework that currently causes you the least amount of cognitive dissonance."

There are times when I desperately want to believe in a higher meaning in life. I come closest to this when I follow the line ofthought of a deterministic universe, which our universe fully appears to be, wherein my own free will is an illusion. But if our own wills are fake - what are _we_? What does it mean to be human or an individual? An utterly meaningless universe because even our own wills and reasons for living are not our own, but ones pushed upon us through causality.

So I affirm my free will even though the evidence is against it. I'm not sure I have free will and I admit that I could be wrong, but what kind of life can one lead if they believe that their own wills are not their own? Life is too short to think that way.

This doesn't mean the discussion is over though, but just that I won't lay down to determinism. I will struggle with it. And so I think that if I'm willing to make this concession to my own happiness, perhaps I can do the same for God.

I'm not against the typical theistic idea of God, I'm really not. I just don't think it's real. I think I might be willing to entertain a belief that there exists _something_ out there which is responsible for the universe, our own existence, how we ought to be even if we have no idea what that thing may be. But if this is God, I find that one cannot believe in it as it may be because it is unfathomable.

Positivism is very attractive because what you do believe is very likely to be true. But it's limiting because even things you cannot prove may very well be true as well. Maybe life is too short to be worrying about always being sure you're right about things.