Monday, October 25, 2010

Opening Argument By Dovid Kornreich

What Separates Us

One prevailing attitude I’ve seen a lot in the Jewish blogosophere is the emphasis on the rational and ridiculing the irrational when responding to reports, ideas, beliefs, and values.

To me, this seems understandable only by default--when the truth of the matter is inaccessible or unobtainable. Rational analysis is the best tool we have when faced with uncertainty or lack adequate access to all the relevant information.
But when the truth of the matter is known with relative certainty, and there is nothing substantial left to analyze on the fundamental level, the question of rational vs. irrational seems to be irrelevant.
Let me illustrate this with some examples.
The Rambam in his classic rational philosophical work Moreh HaNevuchim Book III chapter 24 acknowledged that the Divine command to Avraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is a testimony to the enormous power of truth inherent in prophesy. It is more compelling than pure reason.
I will quote the preceding paragraph to provide greater context, and bold the most relevant passages.
The passage, "For God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not" (ibid. xx. 20), expresses the same idea as is expressed in Deuteronomy (xiii. 4) in reference to a person who prophesies in the name of idols, namely in the words: "For the Lord your God proveth you to know whether ye love the Lord." We have already explained the meaning of the latter passage. In the same sense Moses said to the Israelites when they stood round Mount Sinai: "Do not fear; the object of this great sight which you perceived is that you should see the truth with your own eyes. When the Lord your God, in order to show your faithfulness to Him, will prove you by a false prophet, who will tell you the reverse of what you have heard, you will remain firm and your steps will not slide. If I had come as a messenger as you desired, and had told you that which had been said unto me and which you had not heard, you would perhaps consider as true what another might tell you in opposition to that which you heard from me. But it is different now, as you have heard it in the midst of the great sight."
p. 306
The account of Abraham our father binding his son, includes two great ideas or principles of our faith. First, it shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God. Abraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is not equalled by any surrender of property or by any sacrifice of life, for it surpasses everything that can be done, and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings. He had been without child, and had been longing for a child; he had great riches, and was expecting that a nation should spring from his seed. After all hope of a son had already been given up, a son was born unto him. How great must have been his delight in the child! how intensely must he have loved him! And yet because he feared God, and loved to do what God commanded, he thought little of that beloved child, and set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days. If the act by which he showed his readiness to kill his son had taken place immediately when he received the commandment, it might have been the result of confusion and not of consideration. But the fact that he performed it three days after he had received the commandment, proves the presence of thought, proper consideration, and careful examination of what is due to the Divine command and what is in accordance with the love and fear of God. There is no necessity to look for the presence of any other idea or of anything that might have affected his emotions. For Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment. We have repeatedly explained this. The angel, therefore, says to him, "For now I know," etc. (ibid. ver. 12), that is, from this action, for which you deserve to be truly called a God-fearing man, all people shall learn how far we must go in the fear of God. This idea is confirmed in Scripture: it is distinctly stated that one sole thing, fear of God, is the object of the whole Law with its affirmative and negative precepts, its promises and its historical examples, for it is said, "If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this Law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God," etc. (Deut. xxviii. 58). This is one of the two purposes of the ‘akedah (sacrifice or binding of Isaac).

p. 307
[paragraph continues] ‘akedah ("sacrifice") should be taught through Abraham and a man like Isaac. For Abraham was the first to teach the Unity of God, to establish the faith (in Him], to cause it to remain among coming generations, and to win his fellow-men for his doctrine; as Scripture says of him: "I know him, that he will command," etc. (Gen. viii. 19). In the same manner as he was followed by others in his true and valuable opinions when they were heard from him, so also the principles should be accepted that may be learnt from his actions; especially from the act by which he confirmed the principle of the truth of prophecy, and showed how far we must go in the fear and the love of God.

We need to appreciate who Avraham was in order to see why this was such a powerful demonstration against reason.
Jewish tradition has it that Avraham arrived at the truths of the universe through his incredible intellect --unaided by tradition or prophesy-- at a very young age. This intellect was strong enough to withstand the ideology of an entire civilization and stare down the threat of death by burning. This midrash and much of the Talmudic tradition shows that the Jewish people put tremendous stock in the power of the intellect to pierce through the fog of uncertainty and arrive at the deepest truths. We don’t consider it rational to offer human sacrifice.
But when you are informed from a trustworthy source that this is in fact the will of the Creator of the Universe, you are morally bound to obey. No-one can demand of G-d that he must be allowed to continue living. What moral imperative can claim a free-undeserved gift? G-d can insist—at any moment-- that the time of the free gift of life that He has been generously providing is up. Our rational conclusion against the morality of human sacrifice must be temporarily put aside in favor of the truth of the situation at hand.

Very often, in our personal and professional lives, we are confronted with a conflict between what we would like to believe and what the reality is. I think it is obvious that the rational thing to do in that case is to conform to the reality and abandon our personal preferences.
The ironic thing is that this applies even when our personal preference is to be rational and the reality confronts us with the irrational and the absurd. When that happens, the irrational path of action or belief becomes rational and the rational path of action or belief becomes irrational.
An example of this is the different reactions of Feynman and Einstein to Quantum theory.
Feynman acknowledged and embraced the absurdity of Quantum mechanics based on the irrefutable evidence of repeated experiments, while Einstein was known to be hesitant to accept it because of his entrenched belief that “G-d does not play dice”.
"Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the "old one." I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."
It in is this light that we can understand why so many normal, morally refined, intelligent, well educated Jews profess certain beliefs about the world that seem absurd and irrational to the rest of the normal, morally refined, intelligent, well educated people of the world.
The only thing which separates the two groups is not which one can make the claim to be rational, but which one can make claim superior access to the truth about the world.

(One objection to this whole line of reasoning may be that following the truths of Orthodox Judaism will quite possibly lead one to be immoral and irresponsible. After all, don’t we routinely read about how this or that Orthodox Jew engaged in morally repulsive behavior and justified it with religious principles? Shouldn’t we consider the price of accepting Judaism in moral terms and admit that it might be too high?
My response is that this fear can only be entertained by someone who is only exposed to Orthodox Jews via the media and internet.
It is very hard to maintain such a fear when you actually go outside and interact with an Orthodox Jewish community first-hand (without making provocations).
Baruch has enjoyed my hospitality and the hospitality of many Orthodox Jews over the years-- all our irrational/immoral beliefs not withstanding. Rest assured that in real life, your average Orthodox Jew is quite harmless.
Unless your life primarily surrounds the media and internet, this fear should not be an obstacle to seriously considering the claim of Orthodox Judaism to have superior access to the truth.)

Why Orthodox Judaism can claim to have superior access to the truth about the world.

The claim is based on four different lines of evidence:
1. Unlikely predictions of the Torah which came true and other unique features
2. Unique claim of mass revelation and national-scale miracles
3. Demonstrated ability to accurately preserve and transmit reliable historical records for thousands of years
4. The conundrum of Jewish Survival

In order for all these forms of evidence to count in favor of Orthodox Judaism and against all the alternatives, they have to meet certain criteria:
(The following is taken from Rabbi Gottleib’s lectures)

A. Is the selectivity of the evidence based on predictive or explanatory conflict, or on B. superior predictive or explanatory scope? C. Can the second alternative explain what the first predicts? D. Are we sure that the second cannot challenge the claim of the first to explain the observation? E. If it is a matter of scope, can the second add the predictions or explanations of the first to its own content? The answers to these questions determine the extent of support the first alternative receives from the evidence.

The answers to the questions listed above will determine the strength of the evidence. The possibilities are ranked as follows. The best evidence is based upon predictive conflict: The alternatives predict different observations; one is supported by the result and the other weakened. Next best is explanatory conflict: One alternative can explain the observation and the other cannot. Third is greater predictive scope: one alternative predicts the observation that is later verified, and the second alternative makes no prediction at all. Fourth is greater explanatory scope: one alternative can explain the observation after the fact, and the other is silent on that observation. Last is the case in which one alternative predicts the observation and the other can explain it. This provides the least support to the first alternative.

Here is an illustration of the five levels. Imagine two theories of rainfall. If one predicts four inches of rain next year and the other predicts not more than two inches, we have predictive conflict. If four inches fall, that is strong evidence in favor of the first theory. Suppose neither theory can predict the coming rainfall because each relies upon a number of factors that cannot be accurately measured. But after the fact of four inches of rain, the first can cite enough factors to explain it while the second cannot. That counts for the first, though less strongly than a prediction. Suppose the first makes the prediction for North Dakota, and the second is silent because it does not apply when the temperature is below 40 degrees F. When the prediction comes true, that gives the first theory superior predictive scope, which counts somewhat in its favor. If the first theory can only explain the rain after the fact and the second theory is silent, that is even less evidence in favor of the first theory. Finally, if the first theory can predict the result and the second can explain it, that provides minimal support to the first.


Evidence must be selective, supporting one alternative over others. Evidence counts for an alternative only if it is committed to the evidence - supported by its truth and weakened by its falsity. Predictive evidence is stronger than explanatory evidence. Evidence based upon conflict is stronger than evidence based upon superior scope. If one alternative predicts an observation and the other explains it, that provides minimal evidence for the first. The claim to greater explanatory scope can be challenged by showing the existence of an explanation other than the one claimed.

As it turns out, it can be demonstrated that all the evidence claimed by other religions (and origin science) is not selective evidence whereas Judaism’s evidence is selective.

I realize that the space provided in this blog-debate forum is not adequate to present the all the evidence claimed by origin science, the major theistic religions, and of Judaism, and to show why only Judaism’s evidence is selective in favor of its beliefs against all the alternatives.

You can e-mail me if you want to pursue this investigation in further detail.

What Should Unite Us

Before concluding this short introduction to Judaism’s claim to have superior access to the truth, it is worthwhile to explore the way by which we gather information and make informed, responsible decisions.

Life is too short.
We simply don’t have the luxury of becoming professionally trained archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, geologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, geneticists, etc. in one lifetime. We simply do not have the requisite time or resources required in order to investigate each of the relevant facts available regarding religion’s claims and science’s claims independently. The unfortunate reality is that we need to rely on many other people’s limited research in their specific area of expertise just in order to amass the relevant facts.
Indeed, it isn’t even obvious which facts are relevant to this investigation and which aren’t!
But there is something which each of us should be capable of doing independently.
Evaluating those facts.

John Lennox made a salient point to Christopher Hitchens—which, to his credit, Hitchens acknowledged openly in subsequent debates. But he acknowledged it only as aside before he dived into his long list of what science has discovered about the world which contradicts standard religious beliefs. It really deserves to be put front and center of any discussion about science vs. religion.

Many of the people making arguments against religion are shirking their responsibility to evaluate the facts presented by the experts in the fields and are placing enormous faith in the judgment of others-- regarding the most important decisions of one’s life.
So many assertions have been bandied about by atheists in debates and blogs in the name of proven science and archaeology and have been presented as solid fact, when, after a little reflection, it can be seen that they are nothing of the kind.
It behooves each person who is genuinely seeking the truth about science and religion to resist following the “group-think” mentality which assumes without justification that all pronouncements of scientists and researchers have equal standing and command authority.

You owe it to yourself to be responsible for shouldering the burden of evaluating the claims of both religion and science as an independent-minded, intelligent individual. The five categories of evidence presented above are one of many powerful tools by which we can competently evaluate those claims and arrive at responsible, rational conclusions.