Tag Archives: God

Why the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails, and why it doesn’t matter anyway

We’ve all heard one or more variation of the following argument:

There’s no way this amazing world could have come into existence by itself.  There must have been some sort of “uncaused cause” that created the universe.

Philosophers have been aware of these sorts of arguments for many centuries, and yet philosophers have, by and large, rejected these arguments.  It’s easy to see why, when even just an average freethinker like me can see where these arguments fall short.

Let’s use the version known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, popularized by theologian and professional debater William Lane Craig, Th.D.:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe must have had a cause (which must be an uncaused being – i.e. God).

The way arguments constructed in this way work is that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.  Conversely, if one or more of the premises may or may not be true, the conclusion also may or may not be true.

If you haven’t seen this argument before, maybe take a second to see how many holes you can find in this argument.  I’m not a trained philosopher, and I haven’t researched all that’s been written on this argument, but here are three simple flaws that I’ve either found or thought of:

I.                    Premise 1 may or may not be true

The argument is bit of a logical trick, because Premise 1 already assumes the conclusion.  You’re trying to prove that the universe must have had a cause, but Premise 1 already declares that EVERYTHING – including the universe – that comes into existence has a cause.  So essentially the argument amounts to “Everything that begins to exist, including the universe, has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause.”

The fact is, however, that we do not know that everything that begins to exist has a cause, because we’ve never seen a universe come into existence.  Therefore we have no track record, no basis for assuming that whenever a universe comes into existence (if, in fact, the universe ever did come into existence and wasn’t always there) that it always has a cause.  And so the assumption in Premise 1 that everything (including the universe) that comes into existence has a cause may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 1 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

II.                  Premise 2 may or may not be true

The argument assumes that the universe began at the big bang and that nothing at all existed before that.  While some cosmologists (scientists who study the early universe for a living) hold that view, others are not so sure.  For instance, it is possible that quantum (i.e. super super tiny) fields caused the big bang and those quantum fields always existed.  It’s also possible the universe has no beginning or end, similar to a sphere, as Stephen Hawking and Jim Hartle suggested (see: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/universes/html/bound.html).  In fact, there are several possibilities as to what happened or did not happen before the big bang, and so no one has any idea whether the world really came into an existence at some point or instead has always existed.  (See: http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Did-the-Cosmos-Begin-Sean-Carroll-/1744.)  And so Premise 2, that the universe came into existence, also may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 2 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

III.                Something has to give

If you think about it, you can make the same sort of argument in reverse:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a purely physical (matter, energy, laws of physics – i.e. can be explained without God) cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe had a purely physical cause (i.e. with no god needed).

The fact that we can flip this argument in such a way so as to draw the exact opposite conclusion shows:

a)      You can’t figure out how science works, including the origins of the universe, by constructing syllogisms (arguments with premises and a conclusion like this one).

b)      As I wrote above, since we’ve never seen universes come into existence before, we have no way to know which is more likely – that it was caused by purely physical causes like everything else; or that it was the one thing caused by some sort of uncaused cause, such as a god; or that it, rather than a god, is the one thing that is the uncaused cause and somehow didn’t need anything to cause it to come into existence.

Why it doesn’t matter anyway

Finally, even if one could prove that the world was caused by some sort of uncaused being, it would be an extremely fascinating piece of knowledge, but it would have absolutely no effect on our lives.  Since modern scholarship has shown that all our religious texts are man-made, we would have no idea whether that uncaused being is a god who listens to people’s prayers and watches over us, an alien from another universe who created this universe for some reason we’ll never know, a dentist who has the whole universe sitting in her fish tank in her waiting room to keep her patients entertained as they’re waiting, etc. etc., and we would have absolutely no reason for thinking one of these possibilities is more likely than the other.

These are just some thoughts that have come to me.  Do you know any other problems with the First Cause-type arguments?  Do you see any holes in my holes? 

Thanks so much for reading and contributing to this blog this past year!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!! 🙂

May God save us from superstitions that get people’s hopes up

O God.  This closed group just showed up on my Facebook: “40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO FIND YOUR BASHERT II!!!” (Yeah, “II,” because apparently there was a “40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO FIND YOUR BASHERT I!!!“) It’s got 2,308 members, including 4 of my friends – one of whom has a Ph.D.!

(If you have no idea what they’re talking about in the first paragraph, read on.)

BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND!!

SHALOM Y’ALL!!! BH given the overwhelming response to the 40-Day “PEREK SHIRA” cycles we’ve been running, we found it useful to create a group specifically dedicated to collecting names for the upcoming cycle of 40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO HELP FIND ONE’S BASHERT!!!

As each 40 day cycle runs exclusive of previous ones, we invite you to submit your FULL HEBREW NAME AND THAT OF YOUR MOTHER, as well as those of friends in need of finding their “BASHERT” (predestined life-mate).

As each cycle is independent of others, names must be added to the list each time. Also, those wishing to volunteer to recite will need to let us know each time.

The names are collected and a database of names is finalised before volunteers begin reciting PEREK SHIRA for 40 consecutive days with the list of names in mind.

LET ME CLARIFY: THIS IS SPECIFICALLY FOR THOSE JEWISH INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE YET TO FIND THEIR BASHERT (spouse-to-be).

ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU PLEASE SUBMIT YOUR FULL HEBREW NAME AND THAT OF YOUR MOTHER

eg. Yitzchak ben Sarah or Leah bat Rivkah.

Our Sages OBM have emphasized the IMPORTANCE of this SONG, which was composed by King David + King Solomon.

RECITING PEREK SHIRA FOR 40 DAYS CONSECUTIVELY has tremendous influence in the higher realms, and is said to be a tremendous SEGULA, particularly for those in need of finding their bashert.

ALSO, if you are interested in VOLUNTEERING to do the 40-Day Cycle yourself, and wish to get a copy of list of names of people to daven for, please indicate so and zap me your email address.

To recite PEREK SHIRA in Hebrew please visit:

http://www.planetnana.co.il/perekshira

To view PEREK SHIRA with English translation please visit:

http://lazerbrody.typepad.com/Perek%20Shira%20English.pdf

PLEASE RESUBMIT YOUR NAME EVEN IF YOU HAVE PROVIDED IT TO ME IN THE PAST. WE START EACH CYCLE AFRESH.

PLEASE NOTE: ANY NAMES SUBMITTED PAST THE NEXT CYCLE CUT-OFF DATE WILL BE ADDED TO THE SUBSEQUENT CYCLE.

THANK YOU & BRACHA v’HATZLACHA !!!

I guess we can file this under the No Hope for the Human Race category.

I just feel bad for the people who really believe this stuff and get their hopes up.  Nebach.

An anti-theist double standard

The great thing about being a freethinker is that I just follow the facts, regardless of to which direction they point.

Seems to me that some prominent antitheists are guilty of a logical fallacy (e.g. here), and it goes like this:

Religion causes people to do bad things they otherwise would not have done – e.g. suicide bombings, oppressing homosexuals, promoting anti-scientific teaching in the classroom, teaching kids they aren’t allowed to choose how to live their own lives because they’ll go to hell if they do, etc.

Religion, however, does not cause people to do good things they would not have otherwise done – e.g. Catholic Charities, church-run homeless shelters, people who rid themselves of addictions or illegal behavior when they “find God,” welcoming guests for Shabbos or Yom Tov, giving a tenth to charity, etc.  Good people will do good things with or without religion.

But then why didn’t you say the same thing before – “Bad people will do bad things with or without religion?”

Seems like a double standard to me.  If we’re being intellectually honest, either claim that:

a)            religion causes people to do good AND bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done, or

b)            religion causes people to do NEITHER good NOR bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

My sense is the facts clearly support a) more than b), but either way, it seems to be a logical fallacy to have it both ways and give religion credit for the bad it causes and not the good.

Of course if a) is true, that means we have to find ways to gain the benefits of religion, or find sound replacements, without teaching our kids things that aren’t true about invisible beings appearing on tops of mountains or men walking on water or flying to heaven on a donkey, etc.

But I’ll get to that in another post. 🙂

The meaning of “meaning,” and why atheists have it

We’ve all heard it: “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning!”

Let’s put this one to rest, once and for all.

What do people mean when they say “meaning” in this context?

Seems to me, when people talk about “meaning,” they mean it in one of three ways:

1)      Something that makes you want to keep living.  Something you’re passionate about.  Something that makes you want to wake up every day.

E.g. “My volunteer work gives my life meaning.”  “Raising my kids gives my life meaning.”  “Seeing the look in my student’s eye when he understands something for the first time… traveling and seeing new places and new people… going fishing with my dad… getting together with my longtime friends once a week… give my life meaning.”

One notices right away that none of these examples – nor any of the other infinite number of examples we could insert – requires God or an afterlife to provide the meaning therein.

2)      Value.  That is, when people say, “Without God, your life, this world, it’s all meaningless!” they often mean, “It’s worthless.” 

Here the assumption is that if something is temporary – such as a person’s life without an afterlife, then it has no real value.

As with #1, this myth is quite simple to dispel.  Feeding a hungry child is anything but worthless, even though the food I gave her is temporary.   Neuroscientist Sam Harris gives a great example of a parent holding a baby:

But the next time someone tries this one on me, I think I’ll just tell them:

“You know I drove for 3 hours to Six Flags, and I’m waiting online for a half hour for the roller coaster, and then the guy in front of me informs me: ‘Just so you know, you can’t stay on the roller coaster forever.  Actually it lasts only for a few minutes.’  I was so upset that I left right then and there and went home!”

3)      Purpose.  That is, when people say, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning,” they often really mean, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no “purpose.”  The assumption here is: In order to have a purpose, some being had to have created you with a purpose.  An air conditioner has a purpose – to blow cold air, because someone made the air conditioner with that purpose.  But if no one made you, and you just evolved over billions of years from stardust, then you have no purpose!  Right?

My answer?  That’s great news!!!  If you had a choice between being created specifically to blow cold air or being born with a whole unlimited array of options of who you can be and how to live your life available for you to choose, is there even a question which option I would prefer?  It’s liberating to discover that I have no pre-determined purpose!

It seems to me that those who maintain – and often spread – the illusion that having a pre-determined purpose is somehow preferred are living their lives walking on crutches and want everyone else to do the same.  It may be easier to spend one’s whole life under the illusion that he has a purpose – e.g. to serve the ancient Israelite god Hashem by following the commandments written in a bible as precisely as possible, or by having a fortune teller that tells him what his purpose is supposed to be and what exactly he should do to fulfill that purpose. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s a better, happier, or more noble way to live.

But physicist Sean Carroll said it better and more concisely than I could (at 1:11:55 of this video):

So do our lives have meaning?  Religious or not, if I have things in my life that give me meaning (things I’m passionate about) and people, places, things, and ideas in my life that have value, my life has plenty of meaning.

Do our lives have a pre-determined purpose?  Based on all we have learned from the sciences, logic, and modern Biblical scholarship, highly unlikely – and it’s a truly wonderful thing.

Flooded with skepticism

On this very day, Jews around the world are reading Noah’s Flood or Deluge story in synagogues throughout the world. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a leading proponent of embracing science and history while trying to apply a rationalist approach to Biblical study and religious observance, has written a lot about this topic in his books and in his blog. In his most recent post Dealing with the Deluge, he also cited some other contemporary sources that tackle this issue (beginning by promoting his own book).

The problem I always have with these modern religious approaches that say, “Of course that story is allegorical; it was never meant to be taken literally,” is: Why didn’t you say that BEFORE science left with you no other choice?

As soon as you discover scientifically that the world could not have been created in seven days, humans could not all have come from one human ancestor, a global flood could not have taken place, etc., it seems to me you have two choices at that point:

1) The one who wrote those stories was a human living at a time and place where people believed these things, or

2) God wrote those stories, but He always intended them to be allegorical and in no way literal.

There’s a very good logical basis for choosing Option 1; we have many other examples of other stories written by humans living in a certain time and place with certain beliefs about the world.  But what logical basis do you have for choosing Option 2 instead?

Freedom is actually a good thing

In this article about the horrible tragedy of Deb Tambor’s apparent suicide and the way she and her partner were treated by her family and former community, the most powerful line to me is the last one. The Hasidic Jew from New Square levies upon her the damning accusation: “It’s like she was free!”

By all accounts, Ms. Tambor treated people with dignity and was a wonderful friend and partner. But all that is rendered insignificant because “she was free.”

I think that’s the biggest thing that separates us as freethinkers; we believe freedom is a good thing.

But this Chasid makes perfect sense, given his assumptions; if you’re sure you have the precise instructions from the all-knowing being on how to live a good life, and that includes a lot of restrictions and thus tells you that living however you want is a bad thing, then of course being free would be a bad thing. As the Torah says:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).

(In other words:

free will)

It’s like if you teach your daughter that cocaine is harmful, and she says, “But I want to be free!” of course you don’t want your kid to live free and do whatever she wants if that involves harming herself. So if you know that violating the Torah is as bad for you as snorting cocaine – except it’s worse, because it ruins your life both in this world and the next, then of course you would think of living free as a bad thing.

I normally have held the view that Orthodox Judaism, while based on a false assumption that the Torah is of divine origin, is not necessarily harmful, and as long as someone is happy and isn’t harming anyone, there’s no reason to try to encourage people not to be Orthodox.

However, as Sam Harris would say, beliefs have consequences. The Chasid in this article reminded me that if you really truly believe what Orthodox Jews are obligated to believe – i.e. that the Torah is God’s perfect instructions on how to live, then it’s impossible for you to believe that living “free” – i.e. living however you want as long as you’re not harming anyone – is a good thing.

And so how could we sit here while our neighbors teach their kids they do not have the freedom to live the way they want?

The wrong Yom Kippur

Just think how different the world would be if all the Jews who are observing Yom Kippur this weekend would observe it the way the prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) taught:

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;

lift up your voice like a trumpet;

declare to my people their transgression,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet they seek me daily

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that did righteousness

and did not forsake the judgment of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments;

they delight to draw near to God.

3 [They say,] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

 

[God responds] Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

 

5 Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loosen the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh [i.e. your family]?

8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

 

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

If you take away the yoke from your midst,

the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry

and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then shall your light rise in the darkness

and your gloom be as the noonday.

 

11 And the Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your desire in scorched places

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters do not fail.

12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to dwell in.

If an atheist like me finds so much beauty and inspiration in this passage, why don’t all the Jews who will be spending their fast in synagogue the whole day?  If you think those words came from God, why aren’t you inspired to follow them more than I am?

So explain to me again how Yom Kippur ended up being observed in exactly the way that the prophet warns NOT to observe a fast day?

The genocide of Midian – Did God write that part, too?

One of the things that led me down the path of heresy was learning parts of the Bible rabbis don’t discuss in their sermons.  One particular passage that had a profound effect on how I viewed the Bible was the God-mandated genocide of the nation of Midian in Numbers: Chapter 31, which constitutes part of the weekly Torah portion that will be read this week in synagogues the world over.  I asked multiple rabbinic scholars about it, but I never received an answer I found satisfactory.

When I was trying to determine whether the Bible could have been written by God or even divinely inspired, passages that would have made perfect moral sense in the first millennium BCE but represent moral repugnance today constituted for me just one of many strands of evidence that the Bible was written by humans living in a certain time.  The argument is simple:

  1. If the Bible is the product of an all-good being, the Bible would not advocate behavior that is immoral;
  2. The Bible advocates behavior that is immoral;
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not the product of an all-good being.

If the Bible was written by humans living in the first-century BCE, advocating genocide under certain circumstances would make sense.  But if the Bible was written by an all-good being who is beyond time, it would seem unreasonable that He could write something that is meant to be read and seen as a guide book by all generations that advocates behavior that is considered entirely immoral from a certain point in history onward.

If you are still on your journey, I would encourage you, after reading this chapter thoroughly, to ask around and see if you can find any religious scholar who could offer an explanation that is true to the text for how an all-good being could have written this.  Whatever explanation you are given, I would strongly encourage you to go back and read the story again to see whether that explanation is reasonable given what the text actually says.  If you do find a satisfactory explanation, please share it with us.

But rather than selecting or even highlighting certain verses to justify my argument, I have pasted the entire Chapter 31 below.  It’s just one chapter, so please take just a few minutes to read this chapter below in its entirety so that you can judge for yourself whether there is any possible way that this chapter could even have been “God-breathed,” without my or anyone else’s guiding you what to think about it.  Later, I’ll tell you what stands out for me.

Just by way of context, start with this short chapter that tells us what Midian did to deserve that all its men, women, children, and babies – except for the virgin girls – be slaughtered.  Again, I reproduce this short chapter, as well, in its entirety, rather than quote mine, so that you can evaluate for yourself.

Numbers: Chapter 25 (English Standard Version)

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

Numbers: Chapter 31 (English Standard Version)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.”

Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Take the count of the plunder that was taken, both of man and of beast, you and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation, and divide the plunder into two parts between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. And levy for the Lord a tribute from the men of war who went out to battle, one out of five hundred, of the people and of the oxen and of the donkeys and of the flocks. Take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest as a contribution to the Lord. And from the people of Israel’s half you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the people, of the oxen, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, of all the cattle, and give them to the Levites who keep guard over the tabernacle of the Lord.” And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Now the plunder remaining of the spoil that the army took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 persons in all, women who had not known man by lying with him. And the half, the portion of those who had gone out in the army, numbered 337,500 sheep, and the Lord’s tribute of sheep was 675. The cattle were 36,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 72. The donkeys were 30,500, of which the Lord’s tribute was 61. The persons were 16,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 32 persons. And Moses gave the tribute, which was the contribution for the Lord, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses.

From the people of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from that of the men who had served in the army— now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep, 36,000 cattle, and 30,500 donkeys, and 16,000 persons— from the people of Israel’s half Moses took one of every 50, both of persons and of beasts, and gave them to the Levites who kept guard over the tabernacle of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.

Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, came near to Moses and said to Moses, “Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us. And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” And Moses and Eleazar the priest received from them the gold, all crafted articles. And all the gold of the contribution that they presented to the Lord, from the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. (The men in the army had each taken plunder for himself.) And Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tent of meeting, as a remembrance for the people of Israel before the Lord.

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:

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?