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?

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