Tuesday, January 30, 2007

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Can you name these famous personalities?

(Hint: They're not all rabbis, in case you couldn't tell.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Moral Ends

"And "we make our own purposes" may sound nice, but it's pretty clearly not an answer to the question.

Survival would, from a Darwinian perspective, appear to be a 'legitimate' purpose. All other purposes, from that perspective, would have to be artificial constructs. It would seem to me, then, that there could be no objective way of evaluating their relative merits beyond their respective capacities to amuse me."

'Survival' is just an urge we have inherited from our Darwinian origins, if you want to look at it that way. But why should we follow the dictates of some inefficient natural system anymore than we should insist that we cannot use technology since it was artificially created?

Artificial just means "man made" not "fake."

As I see it, pursuit of a greater human society in conjunction with pursuit of the greatness of the individual is the goal of morality. And so much of what makes us great - or can make us great - are things artificially created. In fact, the things that make me most proud of being human are things that human beings have made and done and not the powers we have inherited from nature.


"Rather high-falutin' stuff, Orthoprax. But I have some difficulty distinguishing it from anybody else's high-falutin' stuff.

In the end, Plato, Gandhi, Stalin, Hitler, Jefferson and a host of others all sought a "greater human society." To some extent or another, each relied on exalting one or more individuals to attain his end. I need more than that kind of phrase to evaluate whether a society is great, or a philosophy is any good."

Indeed, but where they failed was in understanding the basic equality and fairness that must logically be employed for essentially identical objects. All people are essentially the same in this moral sense and therefore ought to be treated similarly.

It is only when you are operating under bias or incorrect data that you can conclude that some minority should be treated fundamentally differently - and therefore unfairly - from the majority.

This, of course, though is only a general principle and there are exceptions - like age or mental handicaps and so on where the minority is truly different and therefore deserves distinct standards.

The point is, and I think I made this clear the first time, that the greater human society is not a moral goal by itself but only makes sense with the complementary goal of the greatness for the individuals who compose society on their own terms. There is a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society and pursuing one at the expense of the other ultimately damages both.


From here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Living in a Material World

CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- Melissa Greenwood sees it every day at her high school -- the hyper-focus on designer labels, the must-have trendy cell phones, the classmates driving SUVs.
You could say it's just teens being teens. But new polls show that the obsession with material things is growing -- and that being rich is more important to today's young people than in the past.

UCLA's annual survey of college freshman, released last Friday, found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in 2006 thought it was essential or very important to be "very well-off financially." That compares with 62.5 percent who said the same in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was done.

Another recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that about 80 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in this country see getting rich as a top life goal for their generation.


Tim Barello, a 24-year-old New Yorker, agrees that his generation has gotten caught up in wanting "more and more and more."

Having grown up on Long Island's wealthy North Shore, he thought he'd arrived when he got a job as a publicist and was able to rent an apartment in an exclusive apartment building in Manhattan.

"To be completely honest," he says, "I don't even appreciate everything I have sometimes.
"Yes, I have a nice apartment, a great job, a great degree, great clothing. But I feel empty inside rather often."



How embarrassing. A generation full of condiments and no food...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Mr. Deity and the Evil

Check out Mr. Deity.

Pretty funny stuff, but it does make the point.

I tried posting this video like I've done previously, but the internets are giving me trouble.

This is another funny episode on prayer.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Designer Babies

So I was eating dinner recently with my family and my brother-in-law begins talking about a show he saw recently about embryology and the development of the fetus in the womb. So naturally I, with my recent introduction to some of the most spectacular aspects of embryology, eagerly join in the discussion. It is truly an incredible feat to behold; to see all the inscrutable parts of a person mold themselves into position and function with such synchronal grace. So he concludes that it's a wonder anyone can not see the implicit design there.

My mother then speaks up, referencing a previous discussion I had with her, about how a high number of physicians are atheists. Sam Harris puts the number at 60% of US physicians who believe in a personal God, though I'm not sure where he gets his numbers since a recent survey puts the number at 76% of US doctors who believe in God. Perhaps he's putting his stock on the afterlife question of which only 59% of doctors state belief.

Curiously, Sam Harris' issue is why the number is so high as compared to other groups highly educated in the sciences. He hypothesizes that it is the nature of the doctor's job, which deals with death on so regular a basis, that leads them to faith. Yet my brother's-in-law issue is why the number is so low. He hypothesizes that perhaps doctors need to feel in control and are not comfortable with a higher power. (Though, of course, that hypothesis is a non sequitur since recognition of design has nothing to do with perception of control.)

Personally, I suspect the reason why the number is lower than the US average is because of education and higher than other fields of science because of selective issues. The ethic of medicine, helping the sick etc, is an idea that resonates well in many religious traditions. More religious people are attracted to medicine than they would be to the natural sciences.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. I have to point out that my brother-in-law is solidly MO. He saw the embryological tail and gill arches and said, "Gee, I wonder what we used to be?" But the point is that the wonder of embryological formation is truly, well, a wonder. The intuitive conclusion of design is easy to understand.

But as we bask in the awe of miraculous design, few people are willing to see the results of when things don't go according to plan. The fact is that errors in embryological development are common. Things can go missing, stuff can form badly, there can be too much of something else - and the consequences can be horrifying. I trust that I don't need to pull out some gruesome photographs. We've all seen the horrors that embryological malformation can produce.

How do theists deal with it?

In a time not too long ago, such birth defects were considered a sign from the supernatural. An omen of bad times to come or a punishment for sins committed. Indeed, the old non-PC word to describe such unfortunates was Monster, which originally meant sign or omen from the Latin root monere, to warn.

Yet this approach is no longer acceptable nowadays.

Even diseases, the staple of superstitious belief in the wrath of God, are now understood mechanistically. People don't get sick because they did something wrong. Diseases can strike anyone. Our bodies are machines. Marvelously complicated and incredible machines, but machines nonetheless. We become ill when we make too much of something or not enough of something else. When our internal defense system gets confused or when some individual part starts acting up. When something gets clogged or tears or breaks. This is what makes us sick.

Is it not clear that our bodies' ongoing maintenance is running on autopilot? When a car breaks down we don't suppose the car deserved it. It's a machine - one much simpler than the human body of course - and things go wrong. The longer you keep using it the odds of something going seriously wrong is inevitable. So we die.

Embryological development, as amazing as it is and as much as it instills in me the desire to cry 'Mah rabu maasecha Adonai!', it must be recognized that it too is running on autopilot. There's no need for some complex metaphysical explanation. When mindless machines are running on their own - shit happens. That's why doctors need to exist in the first place.

I find the human body to be an incredible machine and it amazes me that people can so easily dismiss such incredible things under the matrix of cosmic happenstance, but does it lead me to see a personal God and a theistic outlook on the universe? Hardly.

Morality; What's in it for Me?

It has occurred to me that in many of the metaethical discussions that I've seen and participated with online a point of contention is always about the justifications for morality. Why should I be moral? Yet what underlies that simple phrase in so many times is really a selfish "What do I get out of being moral?" There lies a selfish self-centered conception of morality where one will only act morally if there is some benefit to themselves.

This, naturally, is seen in its purist form when it comes to the religious carrot and stick conception of morality. If I do good I will go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss. If I do bad I will go to hell and suffer forever. Some religions have a more subdued metaphysical equation. Perhaps it's not eternal suffering, but simply a ceased existence. And perhaps it isn't 'heaven' or physical pleasures, but a higher unison with the Almighty. Whatever the equation is for each particular religious tradition (at least Western religions) it invariably levels with it being in the individual's best interests to live morally.

And this isn't found solely in religious traditions. Objectivism and even some forms of Utilitarianism can be seen as arguing for an 'enlightened self-interest' which is simply saying that being moral eventually leads to you being better off. Again, we see morality being put to the service of oneself.

Now in any of these cases, the justifications for moral activity may be very effective and people may act very morally, but I think that their moral theory is rotten.

Morality should not be about bettering one's own state. For if it is then it really is not distinct from making a sound fiscal investment or making friends with powerful people. It becomes a tool and not an end in itself. This is a rotten moral theory that has not gotten past the 'What's in it for me?' conception of life.

As I see it, morality has to be about what is right in a sense that transcends the personal. If I act morally, it shouldn't be because I get something out of it - though I might. Morality is about the other, for the other people in involves, for the other ends for which it increases value. One's own desires and goals should be only secondary to moral principles. If morality is about 'what it does for me' then it ceases to be a discussion of morality at all.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Halachic Holes

Consider for a moment what it would mean for the omniscient creator of the universe to design a system for living for the denizens of the universe. As I think of it, the system would be perfectly in tune with the way the universe works on a standard basis. Everything the people of the universe would come in contact with would fit perfectly into roles and categories designed by the omniscient creator and there would be no grey areas. Things would always work out. See, if the universe, people and the rules for people in the universe to live by were all composed by the same omniscient source, we should not expect any contradictions or problems between what the rules order and what reality is, right?

For example, if such a creator were to design a system that differentiates between men and women, and differentiates strongly at that, I would think the way of the universe would never allow for some grey area where the individual could be neither a male or female or both male and female, right? The situation should simply never come up. And yet it does. While relatively rare, individuals are born with intersexual anatomies that run the entire gamut between male and female. It is even possible, and cases have been documented, that a person can be born with one testes and one ovary.

If prayers were supposed to be given every day at specific times of the day depending on the placement of the Sun in the sky during the course of the day then I would think that there could never be a situation where a person could be living in a place where such a system wasn't in effect. Yet there are such places. At the higher latitudes there can be instances where the Sun doesn't set for six months or alternatively when it doesn't rise for six months. And then of course there is all that space outside of the Earth where one may not experience any sort of planetary revolution at all.

The point I'm making about all of this is that Halacha has certain assumptions built into it regarding the way of the world that never would have been assumed by the omniscient creator. If God was writing Halacha or otherwise ensuring its correctness through the ages it would never have these categorical errors in the first place. Prayer times would never have been defined by the position of the Sun because that's only useful in special cases. And otherwise, if the system required male or female in black and white terms, the world would not be designed in such a way that male and female status could be unclear. If God is the creator of both the world and Halacha then there should not be this disconnect which seems exactly like humans took their false or biased understanding of the world and built a legal system around that impression.

Now, of course, there are Halachic 'patches' for these and similar issues. If you go to the North Pole just follow the zmanim you would from where you come from. But this misses the point. You don't need patches on a perfect system. The point again is that these are categorical misapprehensions of the way the world works. Something an omniscient creator could never have done.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ann Druyan at Beyond Belief

No explanation for this one, just watch it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Is There a Jewish Point of View?

If you can figure out who said this before looking at the bottom, you win a gold star.

In the philosophical sense there is, in my opinion, no specifically Jewish outlook. Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an attitude to life which is incarnate in the Jewish people rather than the essence of the laws laid down in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud. To me, the Torah and the Talmud are merely the most important evidence for the manner in which the Jewish conception of life held sway in earlier times.

The essence of that conception seems to me to lie in an affirmative attitude to the life of all creation. The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred--that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate. The hallowing of the supra-individual life brings in its train a reverence for everything spiritual--a particularly characteristic feature of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism is not a creed: the Jewish God is simply a negation of superstition, an imaginary result of its elimination. It is also an attempt to base the moral law on fear, a regrettable and discreditable attempt. Yet it seems to me that the strong moral tradition of the Jewish nation has to a large extent shaken itself free from this fear. It is clear also that "serving God" was equated with "serving the living." The best of the Jewish people, especially the Prophets and Jesus, contended tirelessly for this.

Judaism is thus no transcendental religion; it is concerned with life as we live it and can up to a point grasp it, and nothing else. It seems to me, therefore, doubtful whether it can be called a religion in the accepted sense of the word, particularly as no "faith" but the sanctification of life in a supra-personal sense is demanded of the Jew.

But the Jewish tradition also contains something else, something which finds splendid expression in many of the Psalms, namely, a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world, of which man can just form a faint notion. This joy is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance, but which also seems to find expression in the song of birds. To tack this feeling to the idea of God seems mere childish absurdity.

Is what I have described a distinguishing mark of Judaism? Is it to be found anywhere else under another name? In its pure form, it is nowhere to be found, not even in Judaism, where the pure doctrine is obscured by much worship of the letter. Yet Judaism seems to me one of its purest and most vigorous manifestations. This applies particularly to the fundamental principle of the sanctification of life.

It is characteristic that the animals were expressly included in the command to keep holy the Sabbath day, so strong was the feeling that the ideal demands the solidarity of all living things. The insistence on the solidarity of all human beings finds still stronger expression, and it is no mere chance that the demands of Socialism were for the most part first raised by Jews.

How strongly developed this sense of the sanctity of life is in theJewish people is admirably illustrated by a little remark which Walter Rathenau once made to me in conversation: "When a Jew says that he's going hunting to amuse himself, he lies." The Jewish sense of the sanctity of life could not be more simply expressed.

-Albert Einstein