Monthly Archives: June 2013

“They don’t WANT to believe.” And?

We’ve often heard theists say things like, “Atheists don’t believe because they don’t want to believe,” or “They just want to feel free so they can indulge their animalistic desires.”

One method of reply is calmly to list off all the evidence against the existence of an invisible being who appeared on a mountain in the desert and gave commandments to a group of freed slaves, listens when we ask Him for things, and cares what we do in our bedrooms.  Another is to go right for the intellectual 2 by 4, like so:

But still another approach I thought of is actually to agree with these believers in a way.  Here’s how:

“Do you think it’s OK to find ways to lower your taxes legally?”

(“Sure.  Why?”)

“That’s just because you don’t want to pay taxes!”

(“Well, I mean, we all have to pay taxes, or else we would have no police, no army, no government services.  But why pay more than I’m really required to?”)

“Exactly!  If I’m really required by the “government on high” not to use toothpaste or take a shower on the Sabbath and the holidays, or to pray at least 3 times a day, or to find kosher food when I’m traveling to New Zealand, then fine.  But if I’m not really required to – if there’s no one up there who has commanded me to do these things, why would I pay more taxes than I’m required to?”

There’s no shame in not wanting to pay taxes that aren’t required.

More to the point, there’s no shame in wanting to have a choice in how to live one’s life, if that choice is there to be had.


Jewish survival and the confirmation bias

While I’m criticizing Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s occasional lapses in rationalism, here’s a short response I wrote to Rabbi Slifkin’s post Two Sentences of Inspiration from back in March.  What does he recommend to the many people who write him disturbed by all their questions and doubts about the core beliefs of the Jewish faith?  As noted in my post from a couple days ago, he says that the divine providence he sees in his life (e.g. finding an article about an obscure aspect of lion behavior right when he needed it) does it for him, although he acknowledges that may not work for others.

So what is it that should take care of all the questions that rational inquiry and a 21st century scientific understanding present?  Jewish survival.  “An ancient home, centuries of exile and the worst, most irrational persecution in history, followed by the extraordinary return to the land and creation of a vibrant country,” he writes. “It’s tragic that many Jews… entirely downplay Providence when it comes to the return of the Jewish People to their homeland and the creation of the State of Israel. It’s far and away the most extraordinary and inspirational part of the Jewish experience.”

I certainly agree that Jewish survival, despite being persecuted in, thrown out of, and, when lucky, simply treated as second-class citizens in just about every country in which we’ve tried to live peacefully, is astounding and inspirational.  As my Jewish history professor George Berlin put it, “The most amazing thing about Jewish history is that there is a Jewish history.” But where does the invisible, all-good, all-powerful being come in to the picture?  To me, the Jewish survival argument for the existence of such a being is a particularly egregious example of the confirmation bias.

Here’s what I wrote in my comment.  If you go to the original post, you’ll see responses to my comment and my responses to those responses.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Freethinking Jew said…

I’m a fan, Rabbi Slifkin. HOWEVER, this post is an extreme example of the confirmation bias.

Think about what you just said: The Jews have survived despite the worst persecutions possible; therefore, an all-good, all-powerful being must be watching over us. You see what you did? You completely ignored the evidence that goes AGAINST your hypothesis of an all-good, all-powerful being watching over us (i.e. the torture, the pogroms, the forced exiles, the holocaust, etc) and you cherry picked the part (i.e. that our people still have an identity and a land) that confirms your hypothesis and said, “You see? The good L-rd’s watching over us.”

To beat a dead horse, the Jewish survival argument is:

A: We’ve suffered and no divine being stopped it
B: Yet we still exist as a people and have a land
Therefore C: A divine being must be working His magic.

But what happened to A! “Well, there is an explanation, we just don’t know what it is.” Then say that for B, too!

Chag kasher v’same’ach! 🙂 [FTJ: It was right before Passover.]

The limits of Rabbi Slifkin’s rationalism

Rabbi Natan Slifkin is far more open-minded and rationalist than your average Orthodox rabbi, and so I am very glad that his books and his Rationalist Judaism blog are out there.  It’s just a shame, though, that due to his strict adherence to traditional Jewish dogma, he has not been able to extend his rationalist inclinations beyond certain red lines.  It’s frustrating for those of us who so enjoy his insights about the Bible and Jewish tradition that it seems, from a spectator’s point of view, that he just can’t break free from the indoctrination of his youth and apply his rationalism to areas that Orthodoxy would consider off-limits – e.g. the existence of a personal God and the divine authorship of the Bible.  But as someone who underwent similar indoctrination, I completely understand how difficult crossing those boundaries is.  Plus, given that Rabbi Slifkin has a family and a large following, opening his mind too far could bring serious personal consequences.

And so while most of his posts exhibit his admirable drive for objective truth, occasionally he lets go of that drive and the intellectual rigor he normally employs when seeking such truth.  A prominent example is when he talks about divine providence – the idea that God watches over us (“us” meaning humans who have a Jewish mother, primarily) and orchestrates events so that things happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen if God weren’t there.  This idea runs totally against everything we know today in science and philosophy, and that’s one reason why, as I cited in my second post, the vast majority of scientists and philosophers today do not believe in a personal god.  Yet that’s exactly what he suggests in his recent post Providence and Lion Attacks.

After fully acknowledging that what he is about to write is completely irrational and that he is “aware of how easy it is for the human mind to see pattern and significance in that which, statistically speaking, contains none,” he goes right ahead anyway and says he can’t help how he “feels.”  What is it that he feels?  Because he was writing an encyclopedia article on lions and when he turned on his computer he found a news article about lion behavior that related directly to what he was writing, therefore he can’t help but “feel” that God – the God who allows millions of children to starve to death and tsunamis and tornadoes to wipe out entire cities – the God who created and manages billions of galaxies – made sure that a zoologist somewhere on planet Earth would write an article about lions and a website would post that article just at the right time for Rabbi Slifkin to write his encyclopedia article.

(I’m not making this up.  Read the blog post yourself.)

When I started this blog, I pledged always to be respectful, and I’m trying now, as well.  But how can someone acknowledge that what he’s about to write is complete B.S. and then go ahead and write it anyway!  Rabbi Slifkin knows full well that what actually happened was a regular old confirmation bias – that he noticed the one time that he found exactly what he needed right when he needed it, but he didn’t notice the hundreds of times he did not find what he needed right when he needed it.  He also knows full well that if we jot down A – every time anyone (or according to the Jewish view of divine providence, every Jew) is trying to find something and also jot down B – every time that person finds exactly what s/he needs when s/he needs it, we would see that B occurs exactly as seldom as we would expect it to occur according to basic probability.  Yet because divine providence is beyond the red lines, or perhaps just because the idea of a father in heaven watching over us makes a person feel warm and fuzzy inside, he completely abandons what he knows is the truth.  If he weren’t otherwise a rational person and if he weren’t aware of basic probability and the confirmation bias, I wouldn’t expect anything different.   That he is aware that what he is writing is verifiably false is what is so frustrating.

Rabbi Slifkin apparently tries to preempt such criticism by saying, “But I can’t help how I feel.  Quite simply, I really strongly feel a tremendous amount of divine providence in my own life.”  We’ve heard this one before: “You can’t argue with my feelings,” or “Religion isn’t just about science; it’s about emotions.”  The problem is Rabbi Slifkin is making a statement about the world – that his seeing that lion article online at just the right time would not have happened if God hadn’t intervened.  He is asserting that if left to their own devices, random chance and coincidence would not have given him his much-needed lion article.  That’s a verifiable claim.  When you make statements about reality, feelings are irrelevant and, most often, detrimental.

We have very reliable tools we can use to determine how probable or improbable his finding that article was, and his feelings are not among them.  Moreover, if you want to know whether any verifiable claim is true – whether that claim is that a certain herbal remedy works, or that I’m likely to win the lottery tomorrow, or that finding a certain article at a certain time is improbable, feelings are Public Enemy #1.  My feeling that the Psalms I recited a month ago contributed to my Aunt Thelma’s cancer going into remission does nothing but make it more difficult for me to accept the truth, which is that some people with cancer go into remission.

If MC Hammer knew that feelings need to be set aside sometimes, why can’t Rabbi Slifkin?

If I were a praying man, I would pray that Rabbi Slifkin someday let go and allow himself to seek truth in every realm.

Is there a “chazakah” that there is no God?

Chances are, at some point in our lives, we have all seen kids’ exercises such as these:


How do you know the answer in each line above?  There’s no way to rule out absolutely that we’ll be surprised with a square in Line 1 and a triangle in Line 2; however, when we see a trend that is as consistent as the ones in this exercise, we can be quite confident in relying on these trends.

The easiest “real-life” example of this sort of inductive reasoning is: The sun has “risen” every day in history; therefore, we are confident the sun will rise tomorrow.

It would seem that we could use the same sort of inductive reasoning, the same sort of trend trusting, to conclude that God does not exist.  (I mean “God” the way the vast majority of people mean it: a being that created the universe and is involved in the world.)

How?  It would seem that by now we have developed the following trend, which is as persistent as the ones mentioned above:  Whatever we don’t understand about the universe and assume is an act of God is eventually found to be completely explained without an act of God.

This pattern/trend is as consistent as the ones shown above, and also, like those above, has never experienced any “surprises” – i.e. we’ve never seen a case where something that we didn’t understand about the universe ended up being explained by God rather than by science.  Because of how persistent this pattern is, we can be quite confident in relying on this trend and saying that whatever we don’t understand about the universe today – e.g. how the universe began and how life began, can be completely explained without the need for God’s involvement.  We may not find out in our lifetime how the universe or life began, and we, as humans, may never find out (although I think such is unlikely, given how much we have learned about the universe in just the last 100 years).  But we still know that, whatever the explanation is, God is not involved.

The reliability of this trend has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout our history:

–          When we didn’t understand why certain people acted out in uncharacteristic ways, we assumed they were possessed by demons or other spirits.  But then we discovered epileptic seizures, mental illness, and the power of suggestion.

–          When we didn’t understand the weather, we believed in rain gods and that rain dances or sacrifices were needed to persuade the god(s) to give rain.  But then we discovered meteorology and learned that weather was actually guided by natural phenomena.

In a wonderful talk on this topic, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson listed other great examples, such as:

–          When we didn’t have telescopes and didn’t understand why certain bodies in the night sky moved the way they did, we, including the great second-century astronomer Ptolemy, assumed the sky was the heavens – the realm of the god(s), beyond human comprehension.  But then we invented telescopes and satellites and found out otherwise.

–          When we didn’t fully understand the motion of the planets in the 1600s, we, including Sir Isaac Newton, assumed that God was what guided planetary motion.  But then Laplace and later Einstein came up with perturbation theory and the theory of relativity, respectively, and we realized that no god was needed in this case either.

–          When we didn’t have any understanding of what brought about the diversity of animal and plant life, we, including the great Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), assumed the “finger of God” was the best explanation.  But then Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace discovered the process of evolution by natural selection and, thanks to their and their successors’ work and to the field of genetics, we now realize that the diversity of life came about with no god needed.

Our sages of the Talmud also recognized this power of inductive reasoning and made use of it even in very serious questions of Jewish law, using the very economical term chazakah (the “ch” sounding like the “ch” in “Chanukkah” or “Bach”) to mean something like “a reliable assumption.”  For instance:

–          Rabbi Abba believed there was a chazakah that if A owes B money that A wouldn’t have the chutzpah to deny the entire loan in B’s face, and therefore A has no Biblical obligation to assert his claim under oath (Gittin 51b).

–          Rav Chanina held the view that there was a chazakah that a learned, observant Jew whose produce was grown in the Land of Israel (and thus needs to be tithed before eating) would not have produce sitting around that had not been properly tithed and fit for use (Niddah 15b).

–          Rav Nachman taught that if A appoints B to slaughter an animal (according to the method dictated by Jewish law) and A later sees the carcass, A can rely on a chazakah that the animal was slaughtered correctly, because most people who do shechitah (kosher slaughtering) know what they’re doing (Chullin 12a).

In each of the above examples, the rabbis observed a reliable pattern, a track record – in all the lending we’ve seen, we rarely, if ever, see debtors denying an entire loan in the creditor’s face; of all the learned, observant Jews we’ve met, we rarely, if ever, see any who let their produce sit without immediately tithing it; when we observe kosher slaughterers, we’ve observed that in the vast of majority of cases they do it properly.  And so it’s reasonable to assume these trends would continue.  In each case, our sages had so much confidence in the reliability of these trends that they weren’t concerned about the possibility of eating un-tithed produce or improperly slaughtered meat – both Biblical prohibitions.

At this point in our history, we still have many unknowns, including two very important ones: how the universe began and how life began.  The same way some of the most brilliant men of all time assumed that an unknown should be attributed to God, many brilliant people today assume that the unknowns in 2013 should be attributed to God.  The difference is by now we have a pattern, a reliable trend, a chazakah: When there’s something we don’t understand about the universe, there’s a chazakah that its explanation does not involve God.  So if we want our kids to follow the pattern and choose the correct shape when they’re doing pattern recognition exercises, shouldn’t we adults be doing the same?

Two more ways the Talmud made me an atheist

There are other great Talmudic lessons about truth seeking, as well. For instance, the rabbis rail against learning alone – “A sword be upon those who learn in solitude! (Brachot 63b)” (The rabbis were fond of hyperbole.)  Study partners, the rabbis asserted, are adversaries while they are learning together, because they see things differently and so they critique each other’s viewpoint, but in the end they become best of friends, because they have helped each other arrive at the truth through this sharpening process. If I want to arrive at beliefs  that are on solid footing, thinking deep thoughts in solitude may be a good first step, but how do I know I’m not fooling myself or simply missing something if I don’t have someone there who thinks differently to evaluate and critique my conclusions?

Finally, the rabbis taught us that the most important questions – the ones that were brought before the High Court in Jerusalem, were decided on by the majority of the 71 judges serving on the court. That is, when seeking the truth, it’s usually a good idea to follow the majority – not of what the entire population thinks, but of what the top experts in that field say. I don’t know much about biology, and so it would be silly for me to try to figure out on my own whether evolution is true. But since 97 percent of people who study this sort of thing for a living (i.e. scientists) say it is true, I can feel quite confident that it’s true. Similarly, if I want to know whether there exists an invisible being who is involved in the world, the method that is most likely to give me the right answer is to see what the consensus is among the people who study this question for a living (philosophers) and those who study what causes things to occur in the world for a living (scientists) to see which way they see the evidence pointing. It turns out that the vast majority of both analytic philosophers and top scientists have concluded that there is no God.

Again, this is not to say that it’s wise to follow the majority of anyone with an opinion. Rather, it would seem wise to follow the view held by the vast majority of experts in the relevant field. Isn’t that how we usually roll? E.g. if a mechanic tells me the reason for the noise in my car is because I need a new serpentine belt, then I go survey 1,000 trained mechanics, and the vast majority agree, wouldn’t it be silly for me, a non-mechanic, to disagree? So why would we disagree with the vast majority of those trained in evaluating the evidence for God (philosophers) and in understanding how the universe works and whether it needs a god to explain its workings (scientists)?

Is it possible that the vast majority of the experts are wrong about something related to their expertise? Sure. It’s rare, but it’s not impossible. Yet while allowing our beliefs to be peer reviewed and following the consensus of the experts in that field do not guarantee that we’ll end up with beliefs that are true, they certainly give us the best possible odds at doing so. No?

How the Talmud made me an atheist

When I was struggling with questions and doubts about the core Jewish beliefs I had been taught in my Orthodox Jewish day schools and yeshivas, my parents agreed to pay for me to fly to Israel to hear a rabbi and philosopher present a series of lectures on the evidence for the existence of the Jewish God and the divine authorship of the Torah. I found the rabbi’s arguments persuasive when I heard them; however, my inner reaction upon hearing each of the arguments was always, “OK, that’s pretty interesting. Now let me hear from someone who knows as much as this guy does and disagrees with him. What would an atheist philosopher respond to these arguments? What would a modern Bible scholar who believes the Bible was written by humans say?” Once I had a chance to speak to such people and read how they had addressed these arguments, I discovered that not only were these arguments full of holes, people who study philosophy and the Bible for a living did not even consider the arguments legitimate.

My journey included a lot of stress around whether I was going about deciding what to believe in the right way. At some point, however, I recalled something I had learned in the Talmud (the rabbinic teachings from the first six centuries CE) in my yeshiva days that tremendously helped bolster my confidence.

The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 84a) recounts that when Rabbi Yochanan’s prize disciple Shimon ben Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable. The other rabbis, hoping to help Rabbi Yochanan’s healing process along, sent one of their sharpest colleagues to go speak with him in Torah learning in order to try to fill ben Lakish’s void. When the two were engaging in their Talmudic discourses, whatever approach Rabbi Yochanan would suggest the other rabbi would cite teachings of earlier sages as support for Rabbi Yochanan’s words. Rather than gaining comfort, however, Rabbi Yochanan exclaimed: “Whenever I would say anything, he [ben Lakish] would critique me with 24 questions, I would respond with 24 answers, and so the subject would become clearer.  And you, you say, ‘There’s a teaching that supports [your view]?’ Don’t I already know that what I say is good!” Rabbi Yochanan tore his clothing, cried, and said, “Where are you, ben Lakish! Where are you, ben Lakish!”

What a powerful lesson in truth seeking. Rabbi Yochanan knew that he, like everyone, was biased, and especially since he was such an expert in his field, he may have been absolutely certain that what he was thinking was true. But then he would put his view out there for another expert in the field to look for holes, and he would discover, “Well, maybe what I thought was a great argument isn’t so great after all.” He knew that only after completing this process of peer review , having other experts in the field try to tear your arguments apart, only then can you feel good that you have arrived at the truth.

Many people today are sure they have good reasons to believe what they believe. They may be just as sure that they’re right as R’ Yochanan was. But this story reminded me that if I really want to have a sounds basis for concluding that my beliefs are true, I need to know what critiques are offered by experts in the relevant fields. When following Rabbi Yochanan’s approach and seeking out such critiques, I discovered that all the reasons for my belief in the existence of God and the divine origin of the Torah had already been reviewed and knocked down.

For instance, if one says he believes in the Biblical god, known by Jews as Hashem, because “The Bible is so amazing that no human could have ever written it,” he will often be so certain that he will stop there. If he would only go seek out critiques of his view, he would find out all the reasons why most of the scholars who study the Bible for a living today have concluded, based on over 250 years of modern Biblical scholarship, that the Bible was, in fact, written by humans. If he really wants to know if his beliefs are true, he should want to know the “24 questions” from the Shimon ben Lakishes in the field. Or if someone believes in God because she can’t imagine a world without a father in heaven, if she really wants to know whether her reason for believing is sound, she could easily poke around and discover that wanting to believe something is true does not make it true.

If we think about how we know anything that we know today – in history, the sciences, mathematics, morality – anything! – it’s because these ideas have all been put completely out there and examined and critiqued by highly intelligent experts in the relevant fields and have stood up. Discoveries are often made by individuals, but we don’t know if those discoveries are legitimate until they’ve been vetted. So if that’s how we always figure out what is true about the world – not just in the sciences, but in everything, then why should we settle for less when we decide what is true about the existence of God or the divine authorship of our holy books?