Monday, May 28, 2007

Heil Chavez!

Chavez pulls a Stalin:

Chavez closes opposition TV station; thousands protest


President Hugo Chavez announced in January that the government would not renew the broadcast license for the station, long an outlet for opposition parties.

Chavez has accused the station of supporting the failed 2002 coup against him and violating broadcast laws.

He called the station's soap operas "pure poison" that promote capitalism, according to AP.

RCTV, which has been broadcasting for 53 years, is slated to be off the air at midnight. It will be replaced by a state-run station.

"To refuse to grant a new license for the most popular and oldest television channel in the country because the government disagrees with the editorial or political views of this channel, which are obviously critical to Chavez, is a case of censorship," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"We have arrived at totalitarianism," said Marcel Granier, president of Empresas 1BC, which owns RCTV."

You might think the world would learn. If I were in Venezuela right now I would be doing my best to catch the next flight away from that 'worker's paradise.'

Friday, May 25, 2007

Quasi-Religious Souls

Found this here, from Arama's link on GH's blog. From today's NY Times:

The Catholic Boom, by David Brooks:

"The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture."


"In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

Getting the best of both worlds, hmm...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Going After Rabbi Gottlieb

I was challenged to go after Rabbi Gottlieb's defense of the Kuzari argument, so I did. Read on...

This is Rabbi Gottlieb's version of the Kuzari argument. He gives two reasons why the gradual myth formation is not convincing. The first one is that the critics don't give any specific means by which the myth evolved and therefore there is no way to judge the plausibility.

But this is a poor argument. There are details in the traditional view that are literally miraculous and hence impossible to explain. Even an implausible myth generation is still more plausible than the impossible since it requires no magic to accomplish.

But even with that said, I think I can produce a very reasonable means by which the myth came to be. Moses was a real person who made a real speech in front of a real group of Israelites on a real mountain after he had helped them escape from slavery in Egypt. This is an entirely plausible event. I would say that he even ordered some laws from the mountain. I would even say that Moses spent some time alone on the mountain while he composed some text that he believed was spoken to him from God.

Is it so difficult to imagine this event becoming aggrandized over time? All the key players are already there. What's a few miracles and fireworks to work into the story over the course of centuries?

Rabbi Gottlieb provides his strawman scenario where all the ancient Israelites experienced was an earthquake, but there's no reason at all to be so minimalistic.

Rabbi Gottlieb's second reason is that there are no other examples of 'fictitious national unforgettables' meaning an event that would have been of vital importance to a nation but would not be true.

But this too is a strawman because 'myth' does not mean that the event is made up from nothing. As above, the Sinai story isn't strictly fiction, but a melding of truth and embellishment. And there are numerous examples of myths like that happening.

One excellent one is the great Kurukshetra War of ancient India. It was a great war, as recorded in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, that lasted only 18 days and brought the entire sub-continent to war. It involved almost every kingdom, save one, and had the combined total of almost four million soldiers counting both sides. An event of this magnitude would be impossible for the Indians to forget, but is it strictly true?

In the course of the war, fighters use numerous magical weapons, talk to various gods, and in the end there are only seven survivors. (But do note that I'm not depending on the battle survivors to validate the story, but for the rest of the Indian population which had to have known of this war and lived through the effects of depopulation.)

So was there an a Kurukshetra War? Probably. As Rabbi Gottlieb says, it's very difficult to make something like a national epic up and have people believe it. But are the details all correct? Did four million people really go to war? Were there really only seven survivors? Did they really use magic and talk to gods? I think those are just embellishments on a true story.

Joshua's Mark on the Torah

I just realized found this little doozy today. Has anyone read the Book of Joshua? Check out the last chapter, chapter 24. The conquest is apparently all wrapped up and Joshua is speaking to the people to renew the covenant that they made at Sinai. But look what's written as he's finishing up:

כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-הָעָם, עֵדִים אַתֶּם בָּכֶם, כִּי-אַתֶּם בְּחַרְתֶּם לָכֶם אֶת-יְהוָה, לַעֲבֹד אוֹתוֹ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, עֵדִים. כג וְעַתָּה, הָסִירוּ אֶת-אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְהַטּוּ, אֶת-לְבַבְכֶם, אֶל-יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָעָם, אֶל-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ: אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נַעֲבֹד, וּבְקוֹלוֹ נִשְׁמָע. כה וַיִּכְרֹת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בְּרִית לָעָם, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא; וַיָּשֶׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, בִּשְׁכֶם. כו וַיִּכְתֹּב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהִים; וַיִּקַּח, אֶבֶן גְּדוֹלָה, וַיְקִימֶהָ שָּׁם, תַּחַת הָאַלָּה אֲשֶׁר בְּמִקְדַּשׁ יְהוָה.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, הִנֵּה הָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת תִּהְיֶה-בָּנוּ לְעֵדָה--כִּי-הִיא שָׁמְעָה אֵת כָּל-אִמְרֵי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עִמָּנוּ; וְהָיְתָה בָכֶם לְעֵדָה, פֶּן-תְּכַחֲשׁוּן בֵּאלֹהֵיכֶם. כח וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-הָעָם, אִישׁ לְנַחֲלָתוֹ.

"22 Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD." "Yes, we are witnesses," they replied.
23 "Now then," said Joshua, "throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel."
24 And the people said to Joshua, "We will serve the LORD our God and obey him."
25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws.

26 And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD.
27 "See!" he said to all the people. "This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the LORD has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.

28 Then Joshua sent the people away, each to his own inheritance. "

The first question is naturally why they would still have any foreign gods left with them to throw away, but that can be easily answered in a few ways. The really remarkable issue is what takes place in p'sukim 25-26 where Joshua is apparently making up a covenant and laws and recording them in the God's "Sefer Torah." It's mentioned so nonchalantly in the text, but it stands in direct conflict with the popular Orthodox belief that the entire Torah was fixed and written by Moshe.

Targum Yonatan makes no changes to the words and Rashi relates one view that this is referring merely to the last eight verses of the Torah, but there is no reason to presume that. It doesn't even make any sense in context. He also relates another view that Joshua chose this time to copy the chapter on refuge cities from the Torah to his own book. But that doesn't make any sense in context either.

Egyptians and the Unclean Pig

"The pig is regarded among them as an unclean animal, so much so that if a man in passing accidentally touch a pig, he instantly hurries to the river, and plunges in with all his clothes on. Hence, too, the swineherds, notwithstanding that they are of pure Egyptian blood, are forbidden to enter into any of the temples, which are open to all other Egyptians; and further, no one will give his daughter in marriage to a swineherd, or take a wife from among them, so that the swineherds are forced to intermarry among themselves. They do not offer swine in sacrifice to any of their gods, excepting Bacchus and the Moon, whom they honour in this way at the same time, sacrificing pigs to both of them at the same full moon, and afterwards eating of the flesh. There is a reason alleged by them for their detestation of swine at all other seasons, and their use of them at this festival, with which I am well acquainted, but which I do not think it proper to mention. The following is the mode in which they sacrifice the swine to the Moon:- As soon as the victim is slain, the tip of the tail, the spleen, and the caul are put together, and having been covered with all the fat that has been found in the animal's belly, are straightway burnt. The remainder of the flesh is eaten on the same day that the sacrifice is offered, which is the day of the full moon: at any other time they would not so much as taste it. The poorer sort, who cannot afford live pigs, form pigs of dough, which they bake and offer in sacrifice.

To Bacchus, on the eve of his feast, every Egyptian sacrifices a hog before the door of his house, which is then given back to the swineherd by whom it was furnished, and by him carried away. In other respects the festival is celebrated almost exactly as Bacchic festivals are in Greece, excepting that the Egyptians have no choral dances. They also use instead of phalli another invention, consisting of images a cubit high, pulled by strings, which the women carry round to the villages. A piper goes in front, and the women follow, singing hymns in honour of Bacchus. They give a religious reason for the peculiarities of the image. "

-Herodotus, Book 2

Egyptians considered the pig an unclean animal. Hmmm...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Best of All Possible Theodicies

For a long time I have been rather contemptuous at attempts of theodicy. This is because most of the attempts make a mockery out of some deeply important matter or they somehow undermine exactly what they were trying to defend.

But there is one answer that I have found which seems to do a fairly good job at it without causing any serious metaphysical casualties. This would be Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" solution. In it, God is constrained based on the inherent nature of the world He's creating to balance opposing values and in God's mathematics there is a required minimum of evil that must exist in order for the world to be possible. Indeed, perhaps at each moment, God is doing His divine calculus and selecting (perhaps through being the ultimate observer in Quantum Physics) the world with the least amount of evil in it.

The focus point where this argument seems to depend on is that God is not as omnipotent as previously thought. For if He's constricted by the nature of the universe then He cannot do 'anything.' But this is an old issue and is really as relevant as God not being able to create a rock that He cannot lift. It is a logical impossibility. So too, it is simply a logical impossibility to create a world desired by God without some evil in it.

As JA relates a counterargument, "But doesn’t that limit God’s knowledge and power? Doesn’t that say that God couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish his goals other than torturing innocent people?"

The answer is, as explained above, yes, it is a limit of sorts on God's power. And no, there is no better way.

It is rather easy for us in our limited perspectives to scoff at this and say how simple it might be to change this or that little detail and make the world a much better place - thus undermining the whole concept that the world is already the best. For example, mightn't the world be a much better place if God gave Hitler a heart attack in his youth? But the truth of the matter is that we have no idea if the world would, in fact, be any better. It could be much worse.

If you've ever seen any of those movies like the Butterfly Effect or famous Twilight Zone episodes (or even that one from the Simpsons) where people who think they're being clever travel back in time to fix something that went wrong in the past, they never appreciate the intricacies of the timeline and inevitably only manage to make things worse (Dr. Sam Becket, notwithstanding). The point is that it's easy to say that something could be made better with some little change here or there, but without the absolute perspective - which only God can have - such notions are due to mere ignorance.

A good article on the topic: here.