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:

math-patterns1

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?

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