Monday, February 27, 2006

The Judaism Grid

Take a look at this two dimensional grid I made. I'm sure it looks somewhat familiar, kinda like the modern grids you see that depict the different kinds of political views of people where each corner shows a different kind of general view. The benefit of such an arrangement is that it allows for a more informative statement of one's beliefs than would a simple left-right statement. Here too, each corner shows a general type of view that all Jews would take on Judaism in general.

So far, all we can do with the grid would be a self evaluation. Where do you think you fall on it based on your own beliefs and actions? I put myself at the top right corner. Maybe a +9.5 on the Freethinking scale and a +7.5 on the Observant scale. Go ahead, rate yourself. I'm curious about all this.

I think that on the grid, Orthodoxy would be located in Quadrant IV. Reform might find itself by Quadrant II, as would the open Jewish Atheists. Conservatives would probably be a big mess all along the middle areas. The Orthoprax, Reconstructionists, and GH's Conservative Chareidi would find themselves mostly in Quadrant I. But in all this, we must note that all of these views are held by Jews. They are Jews in full regard and their views aren't meaningless just because one group says all the others are wrong. We have to look at Judaism wholistically, organismically and as a civilization for us to move forward together into the future.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why I Like Shabbos

Shabbos is an opportunity to take a break in life. We spend all week rushing along, doing this project, taking care of that errand. We have to keep in mind all the rapidly approaching deadlines for all the things we need to take care of. It's hectic! Shabbos gives us a day to separate ourselves from that busy short-term minded lifestyle. It gives us the opportunity to read a book for pleasure, to talk with good friends, to have a meal with family, to take a nap, and to just think about life and what it means in a larger sense than just when the next deadline is.

Even the morning in shul is good. Davening is typically at a much slower pace than a regular weekday service. Maybe I don't agree with the literal words of every prayer, but in the inherent meanings of many of them is easy to find resonance. Peace, brotherhood, justice and prosperity are common themes. And even lauding Creation and using an abstract personification for Existence can be deeply moving as well. Honestly, I feel most at peace and spiritual (if you could call it that) during the Kedusha of Musaf. The whole thing must be taken metaphorically, of course. Even among true blue believers I don't think they would take it literally. I take it as an ecstatic expression of awe at all of Existence along with the hope that there's more to it than merely how it appears. But even without any meaning, the way the words fit together along with the superb tunes make it an amazing experience.

The reading of the Torah gives me an opportunity to study a small piece of an excellent work. Most people just don't have the time or the inclination to take out a chumash and start reading. Shabbos gives us a set time each week to open one up and look through a prepared section. The Torah has deep historical and cultural significance to Judaism. It is also valuable as an ethical work even though its precise moral commands can sometimes be distasteful to the modern ear. Despite that, however, there is an underlying theme where the morality is based on fairness and justice and it is the spirit of the laws that are meaningfully directive. There are also a number of true gems. As we just read this past Shabbos, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil." Where can you find such an excellent and far-ranging ethic phrased any more eloquently?

Taking a day out of your regular schedule and cutting off all the regular distractions like television or computers gives one an opportunity to think. To think about life, to think about Judaism, to think about the universe, to even think about God, if one is so inclined and however you understand the term. To think about history, to think about the future, to think about ethics, to think about the world at large and to think about your goals and what you find meaningful in life.

Now this kind of weekly time-out is more important than any transient deadline or little project. Granted, it can be inconvenient some weeks, but if you make it a merely optional activity then it will lose its feeling of importance and it will lose much of its significance. That is inevitable. Life can too easily find itself being wrapped up in all sorts of pointless details if we don't take the time to give daily life a rest and to consider the bigger pictures.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

God Exists

Jewish Atheist has proclaimed Opposite Day! Hooray!

Atheism's fallback explanations for the existence of the universe is that it must have always existed in some form or that it somehow popped into existence by itself.

However, the Big Bang and associated evidence indicates that our current universe has not existed for all time. And ideas offered about the Multiverse or an inexplicable conception of "time" is pure speculation and no better than many traditional religious ideas.

The idea that our universe, which is as ordered and capable of making intelligent beings like ourselves, was just an accident is an absurd conclusion and is literally incredible. It is based on nothing else but the atheist's stubborn protection of his ideology which effects to drive meaninglessness and hedonism far above traditional values and virtues.

While there may be many things which we humans do not fully understand about the Cause of our universe, it is the height of presumptuousness to assume there is none merely because we cannot prove that there must be one. The most sublime and abstract thing in existence is extremely difficult to prove given our limited mental abilities. Rational people don't reject Quantum Physics just because they don't understand it, kal v'chomer God, who must be many orders of magnitude more difficult to grasp, should not be so rejected.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Deus Ex Machina's Inferiority Complex

FKM and I have been having a little debate on the leftover remains of Godol Hador's megapost. We get into it down by comment number 680 or so. We've covered a number of issues, but there is one outstanding claim that needs to be openly considered and I think it warrants a post of its own. Please understand that we're cutting into the middle of an ongoing discussion here.

I had said: "Those 13 ikkarim, or ideas like them, may have been the stable bedrock of Judaism for 2000 (or so) years, but the needs for contemporary times and the challenge put to them by modernityseems to indicate that they are no longer the de facto paramount bedrock for Judaism or for Jewish life."

He responded: "Okay, here it comes.You seem to be assuming Kaplan's hierarchy of Modern Philosophy first, Modern Science second, (or the reverse, I forget) and whatever is left can stay as Judaism for third place.

Needless to say, Judaism in the past 2,000 years has already clashed with both before and has never folded so obsequeously as the reformers and conservatives (and lehavdil, Slifkin) have.

Once you posit the power of divine providence to periodically interfere with the rules of history (read "His" story) and nature, this inferiority complex has no basis."

In response to his reference to Kaplan and my "assumptions," I replied: "Not quite. I am not assuming anything here in terms of philosophical arguments. My contention is a sociological one. Judaism as it exists today for most people is not really a series of dogmas, but a way of life and a heritage. Modern realities meaning historical events and researched discoveries put traditional dogmas on the extreme defensive."

But what this post is really about is my response to his last contention regarding the plausibility of a miracle maker: "So, essentially, only if you posit that no form of evidence is reliable can Orthodoxy feel secure. Wonderful."

He claimed that such an answer was a straw man, but to explain further, the reason FKM doesn't feel threatened by science's or history scholarship's findings is because he posits a deux ex machina which can change the rules of reality at a whim, thus undermining any conclusions derived from the assumption of the constancy of such rules. Only by destroying those fields of evidence's reliability can the ontic claims of Orthodoxy be secure.

The basic assumptions of science and history are valid ones because in all of our experience we don't see the rules of reality changing. And indeed, with the assumption that the laws stay basically the same allows us to create theories about how the universe has worked and will work in the future and such abilities gives us the power to make predictions that are often quite accurate. To assume a freewheeling, rule-breaking anamoly is a ghost needed to orient incongruent beliefs with the data. Such an assumption has good reason to feel inferior indeed.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Difference Between Scientific Truth and Ultimate Truth

JDHURF made a comment to the post below saying, in part, that "Truth is ultimate and all truth is ultimate truth…..when one diferenciates between scientific truth and ultimate truth they obviously have a religious agenda and do not know what they are talking about."

To clarify my thinking I had to respond and I think it would do well to put my response as a new post in itself.

I responded:

No, I think you may have misunderstood me. I do believe there is an ultimate truth out there. I also believe that scientific knowledge can be the same as this ultimate truth but we really have no way of ever finding that out absolutely conclusively.

Science's truth can be understood in the Poppernian way as being the best understanding given the current facts. No theory can be proven correct, though it is necessary for an idea to be called scientific that it must be capable of being proven wrong, i.e. that it is falsifiable.

Science's understanding is the most rational understanding of the universe, but it may not be the most correct one. Indeed, it probably is not.

As a skeptic I happen to greatly appreciate rationalism, but in being a skeptic I also understand its limitations.

I don't suppose you view my reasoning as religiously motivated, do you?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why "God Did It" is Not Science

This is part of a discussion I had with Jewish Philosopher regarding evolution (isn't it always, sigh...). I had to edit it here and there for it to make any sense in this kind of presentation, but if you want to see it in its original entirety, just click on the link above.

Now, this whole post does not have anything much to do with evolution specifically, but it is useful as a way for me to explain my view of how science operates and how it is a rather different kind of way of thinking.

"I still have no idea why "God did it" cannot be the truth, whether we want label that fact science, theology or whatever."

It can be truth, but unless you can demonstrate it with direct evidence and a definition of what God is and how he did that creating then all you have is speculation and it cannot be called scientific. You may come to your conclusions through extrapolations of known facts, but you are necessarily making assumptions (skeptics would call them unwarranted ones) that are not founded in scientific methodology when you approach metaphysical levels. It is unavoidable.

Science tells us what the conclusions can be based on the evidence at hand. The conclusions may not be what is actually true though. But most rationally-minded people have trouble dismissing the conclusions of science because the known objective evidence is always on their side.


At the end of the matter, what we can say of evolution is that it is true as far as we know (specific mechanisms notwithstanding), but that our knowledge could be flawed in some way. Scientists are not stupid people, they know that evolution is far from a complete theory and they have vigorous debates amongst themselves about how evolution may have happened. None seriously posit a divine director though because no evidence points to that above any possible natural causes. It's not that that is an impossible conclusion, but that it's not a reasonable conclusion before they consider more naturalistic explanations.

"As far as I can tell, and please correct me if I am wrong, you are basically saying that since evolution is atheist [does not involve a god] therefore it is inherently superior to intelligent design theory which is theistic."

No, that's incorrect. I didn't say anything about superiority, just about how science operates and thus how scientific an explanation can be. And the interpretation of evolution being atheistic or not is irrelevant. Theism is simply an added concept not needed to explain how evolution occurred, as far as we understand evolution at this time.

In the same way one might study a murder mystery there are certain ways of going about figuring the puzzle that make more sense than others. You find evidence, you talk to witnesses, you figure it out without supposing miraculous events, etc. Because if you suppose a miracle happened, then why would any piece of evidence ever indict any individual? It could have been a miracle that his evil twin popped into existence, did the deed and then popped out of existence. Absurd, to say the least, no?

Now science is like this kind of rational investigation - but, I said, it is conceivable that even rational investigations can be wrong. Maybe some evidence is missing, maybe someone didn't think something through enough, etc. So in reference to evolution, it is not a _necessary_ conclusion to discount supernatural intervention, but it is also not something that is rationally required.

Scientific investigations are only superior in the sense that they take into account all the available objective evidence and rational considerations. But in doing so they are inherently limited. For the world as it actually is may be more than what is known today or what the human mind can conjure up to explain the observations.

Science's power is in the fact that it sticks to the facts and doesn't extrapolate beyond them. In fact, evolution says nothing about God one way or the other. In the same way science doesn't posit God to be the force pulling us down to Earth or the force that makes water boil, science doesn't posit God to be the force that causes evolution to occur. Now, it could be that God is involved in all those things, but it is just not a required actor to explain the facts that we know about.

"To continue with your crime analogue, let’s take the still controversial President Kennedy assassination. The President is riding through Dallas. Suddenly, a piece of lead shaped like a bullet strikes his head and kills him. I would logically conclude that this act was committed by an intelligent being. In other words "Oswald did it." However let’s say that someone would claim that involving an intelligent being is entirely unnecessary. There is no reason why a meteorite shaped exactly like a bullet could not have caused the President’s death. Would this be accepted by the police? Is this somehow a more rational and scientific point of view?

This is exactly how I feel when debating evolution. An evolutionist will claim that involving an intelligent designer is entirely unnecessary to account for life; a natural process, however poorly understood or unlikely, could somehow have done it. Maybe. But why does he have to insist on that? Why not reach the apparently simple, obvious conclusion, accepted by everyone before Darwin, that there exists an intelligent designer who created life – in other words "God did it"? I cannot help but feel some sort of mental block is in involved here; a profound emotional denial."

You said: "Suddenly, a piece of lead shaped like a bullet strikes his head and kills him. I would logically conclude that this act was committed by an intelligent being."

Why? You're not making that conclusion based on that simple analyzation, there are numerous unstated pieces of information that are involved. One, bullets often come from guns fired by people. Two, people are generally intelligent beings. Three, the President of the United States is not an unusual target for assassins, etc.

If you knew nothing of bullets and you knew nothing of politics or people then that initial statement that a "piece of metal struck a guy in a car" could easily be explained by a meteorite. Only once you have all that additional information does it make sense to posit an intelligence out there with an intent to kill.

Before you can posit an intelligent creator you need to have at least some of those kinds of similar information. How did it do the creating? Why did it do the creating? Is there an intent with creation? What is this intelligence? How does it work?

You don't have any of that information and that is why science cannot seriously posit it. Science sticks to the facts. It is a deeply conservative methodology in that way.

"I cannot help but feel some sort of mental block is in involved here; a profound emotional denial."

I don't think you understand how science operates. Science is not in the business of telling you absolute Truth (with a capital T) or how to live your life or what politics to follow. It is a conservative methodology which follows the known facts and makes theories based on what is known. It may be wrong it may be right, but either way its methodology is certainly a rational one.

What a belief in God is is a step away from the conservative rational methodology to what one believes is correct anyway. It is an assumption found without conclusive evidence. People who follow strict scientism though cannot make that jump. They follow that conservative methodology even into their personal lives and beliefs. It is more often a love for science and rationalism than an attack on God which leads people to rational atheism. It is the outcome of purely rational conservative thought.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

An Amusing Anecdote

This goes back to my Israel trip. I had been spending the week in Jerusalem with my rather religious and politically right-wing relatives. And my tongue was hurting from all the time I had to keep it clenched between my teeth. I had no desire to upset these people or argue with them. I hadn't even met them before and they kept me in their home for a week. Shalom bayit was the rule, even moreso than I'd do at home.

And this family was extremely political (as every family is in Israel). One of the first things the father of the household did was introduce me to Arutz Sheva. One of their older children was involved in the protests in Chevron. And the mother of the family spoke about the ineptitude of the government and the bias in the media daily. And all of this was stacked on top of the religious views on a level much higher than I'd get at home. It wasn't difficult to keep quiet, but the fact that I had all these silent protests in my mind made it difficult to interact with them as I had to think far ahead before I said anything.

Anyway, one night that week we were sitting around the dining room table eating dinner and the topic of alternative medicine, specifically acupuncture, comes up. So they all focus on me as the future doctor and ask my view on the matter. I silently sigh with relief that now I finally have a topic that I can freely intelligently discuss without fear of significant reprisal. So I give my standard skeptical review of such treatments, that they may have some curative properties but the underlying theories are nonsense. That the majority of time patient relief is found through psychological manners on par with the placebo effect and so far no reliable research has found significant credence to the practitioners' claims, etc.

But as I'm talking, the father of the family says in a joking way, "Oh boy, looks like we have an unbeliever here."

And I just paused for a moment and I laughed to myself, "More than you know."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

My Fundamental Controversy (or one of many anyway)

I have a deep internal controversy in my mind. On the one hand I do not think that traditional Jewish theology and related mythology are anywhere close to being truly representative of the way the universe actually operates. On the other hand I have this unquenchable desire to see the Jewish people soldier on and for my own children to be proud Jews and for their children, and so on.

That may seem to some like an irreconcilable contradiction, but fortunately the Jewish people are not defined by religion alone. They generally conceive of themselves and are conceived by the nations of the world as being a people too. Judaism may be the religion of the Jewish people but it is not a required system of belief to be a Jew. Good? Good.

So the next reasonable step a person might consider is to vaunt the peoplehood side of the Jews and let the religious aspect wither. That might sound good in theory, but the fact of the matter is that secular Jews, as they are called, have numbered days especially in the Diaspora. Pride in being a member of a people is not enough to prevent intermarriage or otherwise general assimilation into the popular culture. The Italians in America, for example, had at one time a strong ethnic conception of themselves opposite the general American, but today that distinction is disappearing and the Italians as a discernable group is rapidly evaporating. The same can be said about the secular Jew. Even those who continue to see themselves as Jewish, they don't see it in any meaningful way. It is a fact of birth, nothing more.

The only place I can see where the secular Jew would have a regular life span would be in Israel itself. There a person need not hold any special consideration of themselves as Jewish because Jewishness is everywhere they look. They are immersed in it. They cannot assimilate into a foreign popular culture because the popular culture is still a Jewish culture. But even here there is some threat of the secular Jew losing all meaningful conception of what it means to be a Jew. What does it mean to be a Jew? I'm not even sure I can answer that fully, but I think it means more than the superficial nature of contemporary Israeli popular culture.

So what then is the next step? I can tell from personal experience as well as demographic statistical analyses that Jews will most likely retain their Jewish identities if they come from more observant households. This is certainly true in America where assimilation and intermarriage is rampant among Jews and is worse depending on how liberal the Jewish denomination is. Among the three largest movements, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, the rates of intermarriage decrease as one goes towards the more conservative side.

Generally, I think, the more one's life is invested in doing Jewish things, and I mean really Jewish not being involved in nebulous tikkun olam or philanthropic causes which may also be virtuous in their own sense but not necessarily Jewish, the stronger one's Jewish identity becomes. So the step which must be taken to counter the threats of assimilation and intermarriage is to include Jewish activities within daily life and to pass those deeds onto our children.

Fortunately (though that's questionable), there is a group of people who already do all of this successfully and they have the statistics to prove it. These are the Orthodox Jews. They are the best retainer of Jewish people in the world today and are even exponentially increasing in number. Perhaps this is an irregular occurrence and the bubble will soon pop, but this does not seem to be in the cards for the near future.

So the internal controversy that I mentioned at the beginning of this article is whether I should actively undermine the Orthodox ideology and widely present the truth as I see it or let Orthodoxy do its thing and create a great number of well-invested Jews who will strengthen the Jewish people as a whole? Which matters more? The kinds of Jews that exist or the strength that the Jews will hold regardless of ideology? Should I combat Orthodoxy on ideological levels or should I aid Orthodoxy on its existential mission? Should I be true to myself and publically leave Orthodoxy or true to myself and stay within the only large movement which shows promise for future generations? That is certainly a pickle, isn't it?

I think to solve the problem the trick is to either stay within Orthopraxy but form a more skeptical movement which will moderate the extremes of the fundamentalists or perhaps to somehow reconstruct Jewish life, in an admittedly Kaplan-esque sort of way, with all the sociological strengths of Orthodoxy but none of its ideological weaknesses. Now that would be a real challenge.

What would really be optimal would be to form a reconstruction of Jewish life, but to do so in a way so closely met with tradition that it could be seen as an outgrowth of Orthodoxy and could even be considered a legitimate form of Orthodoxy itself. That would produce a more united Jewish community as each side could still consider each other of the same stuff and would work together respectfully rather than antagonistically. It is a terrible precedent when, for example, there are some Jewish movements who accept people into the Jewish sphere which other movements do not. When Orthodoxy doesn't recognize Reform conversions and marriages then over time Orthodoxy may not even see Reform Jews as Jewish themselves. Their very claims to Judaism become suspect. This can only lead to a worse separation among Jews than there is already.

In many ways I fear to act but there are even more ways in which I fear if I do not act.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Philosophy and Metaphysics and Theology, Oh My!

"You'll have to explain the value of metaphysical thought to me. I just don't see any value in the "study of what could be" (my words). Can you give some examples of what theology has given humanity?"

Metaphysics is the place where all thinking goes as it gets more abstract and universal. The reasoning human mind cannot help but make metaphysical conceptions which are used, either consciously or unconsciously, to determine many of our values and how we live our lives. It is the foundation for all that we think we know and for all by which we act by.

You may not like metaphysics but I can virtually guarantee that you hold numerous implicit metaphysical beliefs that you may not even be aware of.

Of course, metaphysics is also the ultimate search for philosophical truth. That is usually given value in itself. To minimize the value of metaphysics to what it has "given" humanity could be to miss the point in what metaphysics is. What has art or music "given" to humanity? Do you think it can all be reduced to values in terms of entertainment or something like that? Progressive metaphysics may be the height of all human accomplishments.

"Although you make a good case for metaphysics, I was mostly responding to the idea of metaphysics being used as a basis for theology. To me, it seems a complete waste of time. Do souls exist? Is the universe rational or absurd? Is there an afterlife? Questions of this sort don't appeal to me because they are so irrelevant to life, and because science does a far better job of answering these questions. I very much share Socrates' approach, which is that actual knowledge is the highest virtue.

"I do see some limited value in the broader field of metaphysics, but still prefer a more practical approach to life. I find that metaphysics does not really correspond to reality, and would rather concern myself with more practical problems of life. For me, the field of metaphysics does not seem that it has ever given humanity any genuine knowledge of reality. I think it was probably useful once, before the advent of science, but it is no longer an effective means of figuring out life's conundrums. We probably disagree because I find metaphysics to be a lot of nonsense, incapable of being proved by sensory experience, while you find value in the thought process, but again, it's science that makes a better tool for this."

Science can only tell us about things can be known in a rational sense. It may be completely incapable of giving us a satisfying understanding of how the universe is or came to be or our place in it.

All philosophy is a discussion on what we don't know, for if we had the scientific studies to evaluate things it would all be academic. Yet we cannot dismiss philosophy just because it cannot be (or cannot yet be) analyzed scientifically because there are questions out there that demand answers. Are we free actors in the universe? Why should we be moral? How should we be moral? What is the best way to live one's life? What things in life ought we to value? Anything which you find meaningful in life can only be found meaningful through some conscious or unconscious philosophical determination.

Nobody knows, truly knows in a scientific way, the answers to any of these questions. Yet how can we live any sort of life without coming to some conclusions, even though they may be merely tentative, on these issues?

To note, having a materialistic, random, unguided universe is just as much a metaphysical construction as is theism, for example. Thus as you go into discussions on the implications of that kind of understanding, you are engaging in what a theist would call a pointless system of study because the world simply isn't like that. Wouldn't it be a complete waste of time?

Theology is a discussion on the implications of the basic ideas held by theists. You may disagree with most or all of what they say but it being a wasted effort is merely a difference in perception.