Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jos Gibbons on the Kalam Cosmological Argument

[The universe is better than theology or our syllogisms.]

I am going to do something I rarely do, and that's link to a post before I've thoroughly read and considered it myself. Jos Gibbons comments on Richard Dawkins's site and always has sensible things to say, as far as I have seen. Jos addresses William Lane Craig's pet, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, and even my quick skim of the address convinces me it's worth reproducing here (I have commented in passing on the KCA here and here). The full post appears below. There was some ensuing discussion of RD.net, but I did not capture it. You'll have to go there yourself if you want to follow the discussion.

This is going to be a very long post. Why? Because I want to expose ALL the flaws in the Kalam Cosmological Argument, not just a couple. That this post is so long shows you how many errors it manages to squeeze in. The error density per word is actually quite impressive. In short, it’s just a list of questionable assertions, whose “support” is even more questionable assertions, until we finally end up with provably false assertions. As we shall see, the Kalam Cosmological Argument has a long ancestry of gradually modified arguments behind it. But while the intent of all this was to make the case seem more convincing – indeed, the alleged intent is to make it a genuinely better case – there is actually far more to object to than in the simplest versions of the cosmological argument.

Since as far as I can tell Czar Bernstein [note: CB gave the original post in the thread] is not an advocate of this nonsense I have avoided using the word “you” in my critique of the argument, as were I to do so it would be unclear which person was the target of my criticism. But William Lane Craig is definitely a crackpot. Anyone who wants to see how many holes there are in his ideas – in short, far, far more than even this long post demonstrates (as it deals with only 1 of his arguments), although his arguments all have roughly the same error density – should search YouTube for “William Lane Craig is Not”, as YouTubers are challenged to make videos demonstrating he is not some specific expert type, e.g. not a historian. (William Lane Craig is Not a Batman Historian is especially funny because it parodies his arguments for the historicity of the resurrection to show just how silly it really is

Oh, one more thing: usually, by theism I mean theism or deism. (They so need a collective name.)
1. Whatever BEGINS to exist has a cause
Why postulate this rule? There’s no good reason to, as will become clear when I debunk the defence given of it below. Let’s be honest about the REAL reason anyone uses this premise. Here’s how the cosmological argument started life:
Theist: Everything has a cause, so that includes the universe. Its cause is God. Ta–da!

Skeptic: If that’s what you insist on calling it (not that you’ve proven it has any attributes we associate with that term), but knowing the universe has a cause – if your argument really does achieve that – seems pretty useless. We’re no better off than we were before. After all, what caused “God”, as you insist on calling it?

Theist: Oh no, God has no cause.

Skeptic: But, you just said everything has a cause. You have tried to prove the existence of something with a premise allegedly applying to everything – the logic of the universe, you might call it – and in order to convince me the argument has any merit you have to then say that this one thing is the exception to the logic of the universe, a pretty big claim to swallow, as you’re trying to convince me it exists at all. See how unconvincing that is? That you are using premises to prop up a conclusion which contradicts those premises?

Theist: Look, I meant everything other than God has a cause.

Skeptic: But if you reference the as yet unproven thing in the first line of your argument, you’re just assuming your conclusion at the start.

Theist: OK, only one thing doesn’t have a cause, if you insist on me not naming it yet. I can name it at the end.

Skeptic: Yes, but even if the number of things without cause is exactly one – which seems a pretty arbitrary, unevidenced premise if you ask me – why not make the exception something we actually know exists, like the universe?

(Theist sulks)
After a while, the theist comes up with the idea of making up a rule of the form “Everything with property X has a cause” such that he can (he hopes) plausibly argue everything we know of has property X, but which he can later say the cause of those things – which he’ll call God – doesn’t have property X. Of course, why this invisible unknowable thing should manage to have such uniqueness when nothing else manages it is never explained. As before, it’s a case of trying to avoid a conclusion’s contradicting its supporting premises by saying this thing is the exception to the logic of the universe, a pretty big claim to swallow, in trying to convince us it exists at all. And, as I shall show when we discuss the later defence offered for that premise, not only do those efforts at supporting premise 1 fail, but we actually do have good reasons for thinking premise 1 is false. I will not spoil the surprise too much, but it is called evidence, something which arguments trying to prove the existence of an invisible being can never use.
2. The universe began to exist
Why assume that? It’s blatantly just being done to complete the syllogism, unless anything can be offered to back it up. As I shall show, the efforts there fail too.
Brief theistic support
This line is arguably the most ominous one in the entire piece, as it reveals something rather disturbing. The argument is first introduced as a syllogism: if you accept the two premises, you accept the conclusion of that syllogism, which – rather than being deistic or theistic – is simply the universe being caused. But, apparently, this 2–premise, 1–conclusion structure is not the whole story. From this point onwards, nothing that is said is given a rigorous logical structure as the chosen format for the argument. If the argument really does work, it should be possible to rewrite it using nothing but nested syllogisms, with all the inflexibility that that rightly entails. The Kalam cosmological argument is centuries old, and has gradually evolved and gained more so–called “support” from a selective treatment of modern physics (which, in continuing the effort to “improve” the original cosmological argument which the imaginary conversation above shows happened several times before the Kalam version arose, reveals a belief in a god to be all about flogging a dead horse, endlessly rewriting a bad argument in a hope it will eventually work), all of which is decades old (yet nonetheless sometimes still out of date, which gives you an idea how much more progressive is science than religion). That all the claims on which the argument relies turn out to have been around for a while, as does the argument using them, means there has been plenty of time to give the whole piece the same formal layout treatment the syllogism above uses. This has not been done, since there is no way to make it work; there are just too many holes, as we shall see. So the purpose of that syllogism is in fact not an honest effort to find truth, but to make the case seem deceptively straightforward – when, in fact, there’s much more to it than meets the stupid, uncritical eye.
Premise one seems intuitively obvious.
In other words, there’s no evidence to cite for it at all, but “common sense” demands it. That is the basis for thinking the Earth is Flat, to mention just one of myriad examples. If I could choose one word to describe the truths found by science, it would be “counter–intuitive”.
The alternative is that something can come from nothing, which is contradicted in our everyday experience.
Lots of truths are contrary to our everyday experience. That is literally the point of science. As I shall show, premise 1 is provably wrong, but the proof relies on evidence found in real science rather than in everyday experience.
Should be no real debater on this premise.
What there shouldn’t be is anyone defending it these days. You want an example of uncaused entities which begin existing? Virtual particles in a vacuum. The only explanation we have of them is quantum theory, which precludes their having a cause. Yet we know that explanation is correct because it is just about the best supported idea in the history of science, by evidence including its accurate predictions of detectable consequences of the existence of these virtual particles, such as the Casimir effect.
Premise two is supported by both philosophical and scientific evidence and argument. -Philosophical: if the universe never began to exist, that means the number of past events is actually infinite. But an actual infinite cannot exist in reality.
There is literally no reason for thinking that. None at all. It’s just something philosophers say, and not all philosophers, and the only reason it’s ever said is as a premise in arguments for the existence of a god. That alone is proof that deism/theism is a dead enterprise. The idea of an infinite past is sometimes critiqued by saying it would take an infinite amount of time to get from the start to now. Kant irrevocably destroyed this objection when he observed that an infinitely old world is one which never began, not one which began an infinite amount of time ago. And if people still insist on saying there’s an actual infinity, let them answer this: the same laws of nature which they insist on citing to pretend they’re telling the truth also tell us that, since the expansion of the universe is now known to be accelerating, the universe will never end, so will exist for an infinite amount of time. Why do these people think t cannot have arbitrarily low values when they should know it can have arbitrarily high values? Do they expect us to believe the time line is able to take the form of what mathematicians call a half–line, while its instead simply being a line (extended infinitely in both directions rather than one; that which is finite in both directions, such as the side of a square, is a line segment) is a non–starter? That a line makes as much sense as does a half–line is a truth going back to Euclid. And anyone who claims reality cannot actually contain something, even though logic does not preclude it, clearly doesn’t know what “logically possible world” means.
Hubble's discovery of cosmic expansion, Second Law of Thermodynamics (we are not in a state of "heat death," if the universe were eternal we would be), Big Bang cosmology etc.
So the Big Bang happened a finite amount of time ago. Big deal. I hate to break it to you, but there’s no reason there couldn’t have been infinitely many Big Bangs and Big Crunches before the Big Bang of which we know. Interestingly, we have good reasons to think the Big Bang would erase all physical information prior to itself, and therefore empirical evidence should be mute on whether or not the Big Bang was the true beginning. I will discuss this in more detail later in this section, as all the points you put together are intimately related, but the various things which need to be said are best put in a leapfrogging order.

The first thing to notice about a heat death is that it does not occur due to high entropy – which the universe has – but high entropy relative to the amount of space it has to fill. The maximum entropy a sphere radius R can contain is proportional to R squared (not R cubed, irritatingly, which is why I had to say “relative to the amount of space it has to fill” rather than “density”; oh, and the reason I am typing squared and cubed is because this website can’t even display the shift 6 symbol for exponentiation, let alone show upper indices – get it fixed). Our universe has expanded far too rapidly for the “relative entropy” (entropy as a proportion of the maximum allowed in a space that size) to grow; it has indeed shrunk.

Now because the Big Bang started from a very small amount of space it couldn’t have had very much entropy – and, as entropy and information are intimately related, this also tells us there wasn’t very much information fed into the Big Bang, so nothing even as complex as a bacterium, let alone a deity, need be posited as the source of that information – although it might have had a high relative entropy. Indeed, a relative entropy of 1 (the maximum) is quite plausible given what we know about theoretical physics, and it is this possibility which would erase any evidence of a prior history and is what is meant by a heat death. Notice expansion serves to take a universe in this state out of it, which is why we are not at relative entropy 1 now, even though we may have been during the Big Bang.

A rather subtle point may have occurred to you. If time is infinitely old (which, since premise 1 is wrong, does not need to be assumed to avoid concluding the universe has a cause, divine or otherwise, but let’s critique premise 2 all we can anyway, as we have above), and there have been Big Bang and Big Crunch cycles but the latest Big Bang happened only finitely long ago, wouldn’t the total entropy just prior to the latest Big Bang be extremely high (even infinite, perhaps), so the universe couldn’t squeeze down to the small size it had at the time of the Big Bang, as such large amounts of entropy wouldn’t fit on the Planck scale? This would indeed be so, if entropy really cannot reduce under any circumstances, as a strict reading of the Second Law of Thermodynamics would suggest. If a universe undergoes a Big Crunch, this fact follows from the Friedmann equation et al, and entropy seems to be unable to stop this, if you again take the Friedmann equation strictly. The Friedmann equation considers only gravity to matter; if entropy really can oppose a Big Crunch, it would do so through an outward entropic pressure, which would need taking into account in addition to gravity. But the option theoretical physics finds most viable is that Big Crunches can reduce the entropy of the universe, which may sound like a cop–out but you must bear in mind the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a theorem of low–energy (if you will, classical) physics axioms we know we must change in the future as we develop a quantum theory of gravity, rather than an axiom in its own right we cannot escape in any physical theory.

You may be thinking the matter of premise 2 is not quite so clear as is that of premise 1. But it is worth bearing in mind just how much greater knowledge about physics the argument’s framer is claiming than the greatest physics minds in the world today. And it is an old and not a recent argument, which only worsens the insult. Religious people often praise themselves for their alleged humility, whilst they claim cosmological knowledge even the most arrogant atheistic scientists do not. This is a good sign of what is wrong with religious beliefs.
From which it follows that the universe has a cause. The cause of space and time, must exist outside of space, time and matter (God or not) because these things only came into being after the Big Bang.
What about other space–times? M–theory posits an eternal 11–dimensional universe in which Big Bangs creating universes with fewer dimensions occur due to collisions between what are called p–branes. And unlike the prescientific, dogmatic and often refuted claims made in the Kalam Cosmological Argument, M–theory is posited not simply to explain one thing, but as numerous lines in theoretical physics seem to lead to it better than they do anything else. It is still far from demonstrated that string theories are the only game in town, but they have far more going for them than religious apologetics, because they at least make a sincere effort to engage with every current problem we have in consistently uniting everything we think we know about the universe.
Thus, the cause must be transcendent and immaterial and powerful.
What does transcendent mean? Not in spacetime? Where is it then? If theists are right, apparently it is in “Heaven” (wherever that is). What does immaterial mean? The immaterial does NOT have a mass, temperature, Young’s modulus etc. – what DOES it have? If theists are right, apparently it has an obsession with petty human squabbles. What does powerful mean? Able to make a universe? What else does that tell us? If theists are right, apparently that intercessory prayer exists. It is clear there is precious little correlation between what the premises of this argument really demand and what theists want to pretend they have any good reason to believe.
There are two things that fit this description: abstract things or intelligent minds.
Why can’t there be another option we haven’t thought of? This is the argument from personal incredulity, plain and simple. And it is no good talking of inferences to the best explanation, even if it is conceded we are adopting the best explanation we can think of but know there may be others. Not only does this preserve the role of the argument from personal incredulity, but it also adds another fallacy. What if none of the explanations are very good? Explaining a complex universe by positing a designer, who must therefore be more complex still, without offering an explanation for it – or even, as theists do, explicitly claiming there is none – is not a good explanation, whether or not it is the best, or joint best. Surely, if one lacks any good explanations, one shouldn’t believe any of them. This is how science proceeds. The trouble with arguments for the existence of a god is that, time and time again (and the Kalam one has done this many times), they display a mentality which doesn’t even acknowledge any of the findings or methods of science, so the discussion may as well be taking place in the Bronze Age.

The argument that DISPROVES ATHEISM

Some of my Facebook friends have recently signaled that they “like” something called “The argument that DISPROVES ATHEISM” (Update: Just clicking on the link triggers a "like" in Facebook, whether one actually likes it or not). I tried to see what the argument was via Facebook, but the link seemed not to work. Maybe the system automatically detected I was an Atheist!

Thanks to Bypass Facebook Fan Pages, I went to a site called Sharefaith, which had a page called “Christian Arguments Against Atheism” (update: apparently, the site cycles new articles every day or so--or maybe they switched to a different article). I braced myself for a powerful shock to my Atheistic worldview and read on….
There are two major belief systems in the world: atheistic and theistic. The atheistic worldview presupposes the non-existence of any gods. Theists believe in the existence of a god or gods. In this article, we will critique the strong atheistic belief.
What the fuck? Atheism as a belief system? I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Atheists systematically disbelieve in gods. Do Christians systematically disbelieve in Zeus? Do Jews systematically disbelieve in Jesus? There's an important difference between an asserted set of co-dependent beliefs, a belief system, and rejection of the single argument that gods exist or have existed.Moreover, while theists enact their faith through contrived rituals and prescribed behaviors, Atheists enact their opinion in a more ad-hoc fashion: someone makes a stupid claim about religion and/or Atheism, for example, and we respond. The writer seems to confuse atheism with materialism, which in my opinion is more like a belief system.

The key error that begins the article is the idea of presumption on the part of the Atheist. To many theists, Atheists reject the existence of gods without proof that gods don’t actually exist. This statement is true in a simplistic way, yet it is more accurate to say that we accept naturalistic explanations because they do have verification, and these naturalistic explanations are often far and away superior to theistic ones, which are often either superfluous or without evidence.

So, Atheism as a belief system? No. Atheism as a presumption against your favorite god? Not really. But let’s move on.
Strong atheists completely deny any form of deity. The existence of true atheist beliefs has been debated over the years, and strong atheism has many inherent flaws in its argument. This kind of claim, called a "universal negative" is impossible to prove or disprove unless one has universal oversight. One who professes to be a strong atheist must first prove that he or she is omniscient (all knowing), and then proceed to assert the fact that there is no god (a universal negative), based on such universal knowledge. Epistemologists, axiologists, philosophers, and theologians concur that it is untenable and logically impossible for anyone to prove a universal negative.
The above makes a floppy paragraph, so we better take it slow.
  • Sentence 1: OK, but I would make “deity” plural, since there are very many proposed deities and demigods. 
  • Sentence 2, Part 1: It would be nice to get some substance around the idea of these debates over “true” Atheist beliefs. 
  • Sentence 2, Part 2: Strong Atheism doesn’t just have flaws, but inherent flaws. I’d love to learn more about the innateness of Strong Atheism’s flaws, but I bet that the writer simply thought the word “inherent” made the text sound more authoritative. 
  • Sentence 3: Refers to sentence 1, but the basic point is that Strong Atheists are too certain in their denial of gods. These Strong Atheists are making a universal negative claim without universal oversight! Unfortunately, most Strong Atheists I know very carefully distinguish between absolute knowledge—which we don’t claim, and yes, I consider myself a Strong Atheist—and virtual certainty. Our basic position often amounts to something like this: There are already so many naturalistic explanations that far exceed theistic explanations that we have no reason to value any theistic proposition especially. Until theistic explanations can marshal direct physical evidence in their favor, it’s unreasonable to prefer them over explanations that do have direct support. 
  • Sentence 4: Theists must love this, since no one I know would ever claim publicly to have omniscience. 
  • Sentence 5: Loosely translated, this says “No one can prove God doesn’t exist.” True enough, no one (yet) can prove this, but the Atheistic point is that it’s not necessary to prove God doesn’t exist.
Let’s continue. Can the argument get any worse?
Not only is the claim of no god impossible to prove, but it is also inherently contradictory. A strong atheist must deny divinity by attributing man with divine abilities. Common atheistic beliefs include that man is a finite being and can only obtain knowledge through personal experience and application, i.e., science. (Theists differ in this because knowledge can be revealed to man through acts of the divine, i.e. revelation.) The strong atheist must possess all the knowledge of the universe.
Well, there’s another “inherent” word—the writer really likes those! More serious is the abject stupidity of the paragraph. Those who have read my previous posts should know that I do not and would not use an expression like “abject stupidity” lightly. I have no idea why the author thinks a Strong Atheist “must” attribute man with divine abilities. This is a patently absurd claim, not least of all because a Strong Atheist rejects divine abilities as well as divinities. The next sentence reduces science to “personal experience and application,” with that oddly inserted word “application.” I suppose application covers experiment, methodology, consistent terminology, technology, quantification, and so on. Finally, we reach the high-water mark of malicious, dangerous stupidity with “The strong atheist must possess all the knowledge of the universe.” Huh? We must? How d’ya figure?

Thankfully, the article quickly gets to its conclusion.
It can be concluded that a strong atheistic worldview, no matter how eloquently explained, is impractical and illogical. Clinging to a strong atheistic view requires that one must reject scientific and philosophical evidence.
Unfortunately, these two statements are simply unsupported assertions. They are also incorrect, but I’m actually more irritated that the thrust of the claims remains unsubstantiated. Impractical—how? Illogical—in what way? “Clinging” to Strong Atheism requires no such rejection of scientific and philosophic evidence. Just the opposite, in fact. Strong Atheism is a perfectly reasonable inference from science and philosophy, and as substantiation I will offer some of my earlier posts that touch on matters of science and philosophy.
And so we reach the final paragraph of this article. Please remember that the article was billed as “The argument that DISPROVES ATHEISM” and titled “Christian Arguments Against Atheism.”
Typical self-proclaimed atheists are truly unaware of what atheism really is. Few people do not realize that their professed disbelief in god is a belief that is fallacious, self-contradictory, and unprovable. When a Christian better understands the claims of the atheists, it provides the ability to better defend one's faith. Christians need not attempt to logically persuade others to become a Christian, but rather should attempt to explain their faith from the Bible. The act of regeneration is something that the Holy Spirit alone can do. We as Christians have the responsibility to boldly proclaim our faith and pray for nonbelievers.
Sentences 1 and 2 are simple name-calling. Sentence 3 is actually dangerous because it raises the possibility that the Christian seeking understanding of Atheist claims might actually go to Atheists to hear the claims. However, notice that the article has abruptly shifted from the Strong Atheist to the general Atheist, gliding over the nuances separating the positions. The other danger for the Christian is going to the Bible—not some of it but all of it. The Bible is one of the more effective “de-converters” of religious believers because a lot of what the good book says is bizarre, irrelevant, tyrannical, and evil.
See, for example:
Maybe I'm a "typical self-proclaimed" atheist, but I am aware of what Atheism and Theism truly are. Obviously, this poorly-written, un-researched, and un-reasoned article is written by believers for believers. In the end, the believers congregate together “to boldly proclaim our faith and pray for nonbelievers.” To them I say go and pray if it floats your boat. Pray for an amputee to grow a limb back. Proclaim your faith amongst yourselves, but don’t try to convince me what you’re doing is anything other than what it really is, a circle jerk.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems the big argument that disproves Atheism was nothing more than a weak parry against Strong Atheism: Strong Atheists are not omniscient! This is a sad, sad argument. Sadder still is the time I wasted in reading the "disproof." Saddest of all is that people would actually give this article a "like." The joke's on them, I'm afraid.


Page 21 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass begins with one of the best words ever: Ya-honk!
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.

The sharphoofed moose of the north, the cat on the housesill, the chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,
The brood of the turkeyhen, and she with her halfspread wings,
I see in them and myself the same old law.
Of course, the ya-honk sound is a single wild gander leading his flock in the night. Perhaps our wild gander is a figure of the poet. In any case, the poet takes the sound as an invitation to find meaning. That meaning is found suspended in the earth's heavens. The poet's attention moves to other creatures, as if we were considering an American bestiary. The poet claims to recognize something common in all these animals and himself, a "same old law." I suppose this law is consecrated by its age, but what is this law?

The poet seems not to say, but moves on.
The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,
They scorn the best I can do to relate them.

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.
We seem to oscillate between the sky of the gander and the earth of the working animals. I have mentioned before the poet's fondness for work for the body immersed in environment and working. The poet settles on the "Me" on the working, opportunistic Me. Goodness and connectedness are located in commonality of the Me, in the Me's relatively low value in another economy.

Now, it seems, the poet relates several variations of the occupied Me, the Me in and of work:
The pure contralto sings in the organloft,
The carpenter dresses his plank . . . . the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand . . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove,
The machinist rolls up his sleeves . . . . the policeman travels his beat . . . . the gate-keeper marks who pass,
This is the poet scattering the Me freely. This is the Me as it gets spent in America, the investment made in hopes of a vast return. The poet's litany speaks of variety and difference, yet we still have the question of the "same old law" unresolved as the Me-list gets unfolded.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kuzari: Final Thoughts

After yesterday's post on my emails with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, I want to tie up that discussion with some final reflections.
  • Gottlieb initially said that I had not engaged the empirical support of his argument. However, I believe that anyone who reads yesterday's post will see that I carefully and conclusively show how his argument actually brings in no empirical support at all. His mantra was, and remains, "show me a false NET." He continues to demand evidence (i.e., a false NET) but points to none himself. He is therefore engaging in apologetics rather than establishing a positive case.
  • Gottlieb challenges others to show him documented "real" false NET events. He reasons that if there are no such false NETs, then we are left with only a hypothesis that NETs can be false--only a hypothesis, not a case based on direct evidence. The hypothesis frame is important to Gottlieb because he claims that his "empirically-based" support for Kuzari trumps the hypothesis of false NETs, but Gottlieb is actually incorrect on many levels here. First, as I have already shown, his support for Kuzari is anything but empirically-based. Second, we cannot base a belief in Sinai's truth on whether we can find sufficiently parallel real or fictional events. We can base such a belief on physical evidence, on interpretation of historical data, on the authority of certain figures or certain texts--but the presumed uniqueness of the Sinai story is not a criterion of its accuracy or truth. Third, the tactic to limit matters to the existence of NETs is nothing short of evasion: the case against Kuzari is based on a range of empirical data. Yesterday, I explicitly identified the main categories of this data. The existence or non-existence of NETs has little-to-no bearing on Kuzari's serious problems in logic, on the lack of physical evidence for Sinai, or on the evidence we do have concerning the history and composition of the Torah.
  • One item getting lost in the discussion and its too-loose terminology is that we cannot automatically grant that Sinai itself is true or even a NET event. Without presuming that Sinai is either true or false, we see that NET events are quite subjective and slippery. What defines a "nation"? What defines "witness"? How do we assess the nature and level of belief in "The story was in fact believed to be true? I am not asking trivial questions of semantics but serious questions of philosophical and empirical grounding. These serious questions have not to date been answered satisfactorily, as far as I know.
  • Gottlieb criticizes my argument for being hypothetical, which is to say it consists of a "plausible" scenario that is not, in fact, real. This is puzzling for two reasons. One, my argument has a much wider scope than the two examples I use as Sinai parallels. Indeed, as I have said, "It does not take real cases of false NETs to defeat [Kuzari] because it's already a flawed principle!" Two, Gottlieb's argument in support of Kuzari is itself hypothetical. I give a hypothesis as to how the Sinai story developed, and that hypothesis is one part of my overall argument. Gottlieb gives another hypothesis about Sinai: that what it reports is true and was later recorded by some combination of witnesses and recorders. We are both dealing with the hypothetical, and what we are trying to do is come up with a sensible way to determine which hypothesis is better suited to the truth.
Whether or not we are convinced by Kuzari, we must never ignore or forget what it actually is. It is a principle designed to favor a certain interpretation of Jewish history and texts. It is not evidence and it is not proof. Most of all, it is itself unproven. The basic claim, asserted positively for once, is that there are some stories so big and important that people will only believe they are true with lots and lots of evidence (however defined). I think this is a claim that can be tested, to a limited extent, and that can be adjusted for sliding matters of what's big and what's important. With testing, I think I would be willing to revisit my intellectual disdain for Kuzari.

Another big data point to keep in mind is that outside of the Torah's report of Sinai, there is no positive case for the event. To my knowledge, we have no reason to believe Sinai actually happened other than the Torah's ambiguous description of an event. As thinkers, we have a responsibility to ask what sorts of evidence might reasonably have been produced from the Sinai event in the Torah. For instance, should we expect that other nations might have seen something from afar and reported it? If we say "no" in this case, then perhaps we need to address the problem of Sinai's being an enclosed event. Kuzari downplays other revelations as being "semi-private," yet the Sinai revelation is private in its own way because only the one group has received the revelation. Had Israel, Sinai, and the Amalekites all experienced the same revelation and recorded it, then we would have strong evidence of a most momentous event in human history.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kuzari Keeps on Giving, or Pay No Attention to the Assumptions Behind My Principle!

 [The Kuzari Principle is not so wonderful as it first may appear.]

I have been exchanging emails recently with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb concerning my post on the Kuzari Principle. When I finished that post, I emailed Gottlieb to let him know it was up. He emailed me the following:
I appreciate your sending me the link to your article. Although well written and clearly presented, I find that it does not engage my argument at all. Below are the sections of my essays that are relevant.

I could just copy them onto your blog and post them on mine, but I will wait a while to see if you want to revise your article.
In this note, he includes relevant selections from his previous writings, and he also gives a link. Here is my response to him:
Thank you, truly, for your reply. I have carefully read the material below (I was familiar with it already) and considered whether a revision to my article would be necessary or prudent. I simply don't see any points in my piece that warrant revision based on the text below.

Please know that I am grateful to you for emailing me and for reading my article. I appreciate the descriptions "well written" and "clearly presented," as I do work hard at communication and am often not nearly as successful as I would like.
I really thought we were done at this point, but no....

The passages below from your article indicate that you did not even consider my argument that the support of KP is empirical, and not "logical" or intuitive. Your critique is to imagine a plausible scenario via which the tradition could have come into existence even if the event did not occur. I argue explicitly that the ability to imagine such a thing has no bearing on an argument based on the real experience of real human traditions. At no point do you engage this argument.

The person who prefers Kuzari thus chooses a weak and indirect logical argument over an argument developed using empirical data. [LT]

My point is that in truth, the roles you describe here are precisely reversed. You are using a weak, intuitive argument concerning what it is reasonable to assume about collective human behavior. I, on the contrary, am using empirical data.

We also have scientific knowledge of the real workings of the natural and social world – and this knowledge leads us to see the truth as being ever less likely as portrayed in ancient religions. [LT]

What about the logical proofs offered by Gottlieb to explain Kuzari?

The evolutionary nature of both stories and societies thus undermines Kuzari's premises. This evolutionary development is extremely plausible and very well attested. [LT]

Not for anty cases meeting the conditons of KP. There is not even one such case.

Kuzari supports an illusion people can afford to have and often feel like they cannot afford to live without [LT]

Just an appeal to intuitive psychology.

Thus, neither the Sinai event nor the laws purported to have been given at that time seem to represent anything of radical uniqueness or difference [LT]

You are ignoring the uniqueness of the event by focusing in stead on the content of the treaty.
Above, I have signaled with an [LT] those places where my article has been quoted. At this point, I am focused on Gottlieb's idea that he has an empirically-based argument. He doesn't, and I do. This is the argument I continue to make in my response to Gottlieb's last email:

You say that "the support of KP is empirical." Please tell me, then, what the empirical data is; after all, providing such data is the burden of your argument. To my mind, that burden has not been met thus far because the evidence of real human experience and of real human cultures suggests that a naturalistic, cultural-evolutionary hypothesis is far more likely than a genuine divine-human interaction (which by definition is practically the least likely explanation).

My argument, however imperfect, focuses on several empirical domains: (a) The rhetoric of KP proponents, which is driven by "spin" in language; (b) the modern form of the Documentary Hypothesis, which draws on seven types of empirical data; (c) cultural parallels to Sinai elements and relevant biblical passages bearing on general arguments made by KP proponents; (d) scrutiny of the logic expressed in and through the KP; and (e) an examination of the relevant Torah passages, in English, regarding the Sinai event.

I find the logical proofs on Kuzari unpersuasive for reasons I explain in my article: (1) The very possibility of a divine-human event is itself not established satisfactorily; (2) the definition of "evidence" used is too imprecise; and (3) the seemingly arbitrary tethering of cultural beliefs to single events is overly simple and not sufficiently nuanced to deal with real cultural history. The events themselves are not the only or the most important elements in shaping public belief. However, all three of these reasons point to major flaws in reasoning based on KP.

Sinai may be a unique story--although in some elements it actually is not--but in my opinion KP needs more than the quality of uniqueness to be truly compelling.

I thank you again for clarifying your critique and for allowing me the opportunity to clarify my position. I enjoy this dialogue, but I don't wish to press you into an argument if you don't want one. Nevertheless, I am interested in your responses to my challenges to you, which are to have you be very clear about what your empirical data actually is and to have you defend your argument against the three reasons I give above for finding the logical proofs on Kuzari unpersuasive.
Gottlieb's email back starts to complicate matters. He persists in claiming that his argument appeals to empirical data, and he re-states his argument in favor of Kuzari:

The empirical data I appeal to are highlighted in blue below [LT note: In the email, Gottlieb has color highlighted sections from his writings. I do not reproduce these writings here, as they are too long.] that . The red section expresses what I take to be your argument. Please review them before continuing my argumentation here.

Now I can put my argument directly, in two stages. Stage 1:

a. Assume there are no historical parallels - no known false national traditions of national unforgettables - no known false NETs. .

b. Then the evidence in favor of the Sinai tradition being such a false national traditions is all indirect. It is all of the form: people do other things that seem similar to forming false NETs.

c. In a conflict of evidence, direct evidence takes precedence over indirect evidence. In other words: indirect evidence can only show possibility and plausibility. It does not show probability. If we have a total absence of direct evidence, then there is no positive probability - only possibility and [psychological] plausibility. But the real world often does not agree with our judgments of plausibility. So only direct evidence can justify a judgment of real probability. [See Q+A below.]

Now stage 1 starts with the assumption a. I present no direct investigation of its correctness. Even so, at this stage the critic ought to recognize that the argument is valid [as opposed to sound], so that if a is correct my conclusion follows. If the critic does not know a to be false, what he ought to say is: "We do not know whether the KP argument succeeds or fails. It depends upon an unverified - and unfalsified - empirical assumption. Thus we cannot pas judgment on the argument at this stage." Now stage 2:

If the psychological process(es) the critic is appealing to is/are to be probable [that is, the process(es) that produce false NETs], they must have occurred more than once or twice in all of human history. I think we should expect a good dozen verified cases at least. The fact that there are no well known cases should give the critic pause. But here is the key point: until and unless he finds such cases, then all the direct evidence we have is that there are none, and the argument should be regarded as [at least provisionally] valid and sound.

That is how far the material I have so far made public should take the critic. Since Living Up was written I have done some considerable research, and engaged in lengthy debate with a professor of classics, all of which has reinforced my conclusion that there are no known false NETs. If you like, I will send you that material.

Concerrning "(1) The very possibility of a divine-human event is itself not established satisfactorily" please see http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/comments/Credibility_Of_Testimony.htm
I hardly think Gottlieb's two-stage argument is stated directly. In my view, my original critique of Gottlieb's reasoning stands solidly. I say as much in the latter part of my reply, but before I give it let me express some shock that Gottlieb wants us to accept Kuzari as sound, in the absence of perfect false NETs. That's not the way it works! The premises are not true, regardless of the existence of perfect false NETs. Unfortunately, I did not point this out in my reply to the Rabbi:

I see that you have highlighted in blue four main passages. You tell me that "The empirical data I appeal to are highlighted in blue below," but I see you bringing in no empirical data at all to support your position.

Passage 1 ("The question is...resembling such an event"): Here, you ask a question and demand Kuzari opponents to show you "real cases." But you are evading my request: I understand that you do not accept the evidence that I have brought in. I want you to explain what your evidence actually is. Your dismissal of my empirical data is not showing me evidence. Your demand to me for evidence is not showing me evidence. In this passage, you have not met your burden to provide actual empirical data that you claim is the basis of your argument.

Passage 2 ("If you think than an event...once in the history of the world!"): Again you are asking for parallels. I don't know why you do this, since you reject all the parallels brought before you. It seems that what you want is something identical to Sinai in every way, 100%, all the way through. Same thing with your claim of lack of historical parallels. In this second passage, no actual evidence is brought by you. You may want to know at this point what I think your evidence ought to look like. In my mind, you should be citing data on the nature of Jewish "belief in the revelation at Sinai." You could also bring in data on those earthquakes and volcanic eruptions you speak of.

Passage 3 ("We need reason...in national revelation."): This is a single assertion, but it provides no evidence itself. Again, the totality of your reasoning seems based on claiming insufficient evidence on the other side of the argument. But you are no providing any evidence yourself. In my last email, I explicitly listed the empirical data grounding my argument. I am asking you to do the same.

Passage 4 ("The very minimum indirect evidence...produced such a belief"): As before, your argument is all critique and no evidence.

So, I continue to assert that your argument in support of KP is not based on empirical data. I also maintain that I have met my burden to provide an empirically-based justification for rejecting KP as a proof of Judaism's truth. Please note that I am not saying here that "Judaism is false"; I am only saying that KP does not prove Judaism.

As to your two-stage argument:

I find item (b) in Stage 1 to be puzzling because it conflates the Sinai event (which can be true or false, i.e. there was or was not a single event) with the report of the Sinai event (which can be accurate or inaccurate). Now, my parenthetical notes already point to some of the complications we face: are we talking about a single event or many events? When, or over what time span? What's the relationship of the report to the event(s)? What purposes might have been achieved through such a report? What information was included and excluded?

My point here is that I don't think it's promising for any researcher to set out to "disprove" or to "falsify" Sinai or the Sinai tradition. Rather, I think the goal of the researcher is to understand as much relevant information as possible about Sinai and the Sinai tradition. I also don't think it's useful or necessary to be invested in a particular outcome of the research, i.e., Sinai being true or false. For this reason, I dislike your item (a), which seems unwarranted to me. I don't know why we want to start out by making this large assumption. Besides, if we assume (a), why do we need (b), since if there aren't any false NETs, then there naturally won't be any direct evidence of them?

Let me conclude by saying that I don't "get" why you want direct evidence of falsity. I imagine you are looking for something like a signed letter by Moses that says "I made the whole thing up." But I don't think KP opponents claim for the most part that there is direct evidence of falsity, in this or in most cases. My position is that "direct evidence of falsity" is a red herring, a tactic to distract attention away from the real problem of your argument: no direct evidence of veracity for either the Sinai event or the Sinai report. Even if KP is true as a principle, it is not itself direct evidence of the Sinai event and it does not necessarily corroborate the report of Sinai in Judaism's holy writings.

Please do not take my last statements here as a personal attack or as unduly harsh. I do not intend them so. I only mean to speak as clearly and frankly about my opinion of our arguments.

I have no objections to your using our dialogue in your websites and blogs. I only ask that you provide a link to my article so that people may read it for themselves and judge its merits and flaws as written. I hope you will allow me to do the same.
By this point, I think I've closed down the empirical argument. In Gottlieb's next response, I sense he is getting frustrated with our exchange:
Perhaps we can test our commuinicatin by focusing on one very small opint. I write:

a. Assume there are no historical parallels - no known false national traditions of national unforgettables - no known false NETs. .

and again

a. Assume there are no historical parallels - no known false national traditions of national unforgettables - no known false NETs.

And I define NET this way:

The condition of Sinai is this: it is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation. Let's call this NET [National Experiential Tradition] for short.

So I am asking for real NETs. Now you write:

It seems that what you want is something identical to Sinai in every way, 100%, all the way through. [LT]

Can you explain how your wrods are at all related to mine?
I say back:
You ask: "Can you explain how your wrods [sic] are at all related to mine?"

My answer: yes, I can. My comment is based on the idea that there are parallels to Sinai. There are aspects of Sinai that other reports of events share. My article lists some.
He then sends me this response:
Aany two things "share aspects". What is needed is events that satisfy the definition of NET. You have provided none.
I get what he wants. He wants me to say either that (a) ABC is an event that meets the conditions of NET, and it was false; or that (b) there are no known false NET events. I completely agree that I have not provided any events (false or true) that meet his full definition of NET:
I agree, but it seems the definition of NET is rigged to include only Sinai. Do you have a list of objective criteria that define any NET -- real or hypothetical?

Also, I'm a bit disappointed that you have not yet acknowledged the lack of empirical grounding for your argument, as I show by reviewing your four blue-highlighted passages.
My point here is that the NET definition we have used so far is too squishy to be really useful. In his emails, Gottlieb's working definition of NET is "national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation." I would like to know the specifics of "national," "tradition," and "change the life." These are potentially variable terms that will affect the scope of events we may be able to include or exclude as NETs.

While I was writing my last email, Gottlieb had sent this:
Furthermore, your words are still not connected to mine: I said the parallels should be *[false] NET events. You say that I want #an event identical to the revelation. * is not identical to # [nor even closely related]. So you are not addressing my words.
Again, I get what Gottlieb is doing. His implicit case is that if Sinai is supposed to be a false NET then there should be other false NETs. In my Kuzari article, I mention the Aztec national revelation and some claims about the appearance of the post-crucifixion Jesus as potential qualifiers. Nevertheless, I think the seemingly arbitrary condition of "false" NET ought to be sidestepped. As I write to Gottlieb:
And I am not dealing with the question of falsehood. Let's try to round up some NETs and then determine which are true and which are false.
Gottlieb graciously sent me a document that looks to be an appendix to a book of his. The document purports to be "a survey of spurious beliefs." It's supposed to show that there remain no documented false NETs: no false NETs means that Sinai should be true, I guess. It does not seem to deal with the Aztec and Jesus cases I have cited, but (a) I have only skimmed at this point and (b) I am interested to see some better-defined criteria for a NET:
(1) The story must describe an event witnessed by a nation. (2) The event must be one that would have created a national tradition. (3) The story was in fact believed to be true. (4) The believers included the nation composed of the descendants of those to whom the event was supposed to have occurred. (5) The story is in fact false.
My sense is that Gottlieb is only satisfied if all five criteria are present at the same time. If not, then to him there are no "real" documented cases of false NETs.

Let me note here now that this appendix still fails to provide the empirical grounding that I was requesting earlier. All it's doing is going down a checklist and disqualifying possible candidate events from (false) NET status. Going down a checklist like this is not the same thing as providing empirical evidence in favor of the Kuzari Principle. Indeed, that evidence might consist of specific events meeting the five criteria above, except that (3) would be "The story was in fact not believed to be true." In (4), "believers" would change to "non-believers."

Since I am getting bored with the topic, let me concede one point (with rights reserved by me to take it back upon further review and/or better data): there are no "real" documented cases of false NETs. So what? And what, pray tell, are the "real" documented cases of true NETs?

I'm going to skip a few emails and go to my latest one to Gottlieb. I start off apologizing to him for suggesting that his idea of NETs seems rigged to apply only to Sinai. He said that a war or a natural disaster could just as well qualify as a NET. Thus, I say:
I see your point that NET can apply to events beyond Sinai itself. Apologies for saying it was "rigged," but what are the objective criteria of a NET? This is a very important point that continues to get glossed over.

I also think you are missing the larger criticism of Kuzari. It does not take real cases of false NETs to defeat KP because it's already a flawed principle! It's construction is fatally deficient from the get-go because it assumes the truth/falsehood of an event when the truth/falsehood of that event is what we want to know.

Take your example below, "Someone is trying to convince me that a fictitious war, or an earthquake, or something like that happened. If he is right that it (the war, earthquake, etc.) really happened, I should know about it already. I shouldn’t need him to tell me. Then the principle tells me that I will not be convinced by him. The problem of the missing evidence will prevent me from believing him." The "fictitious" in your example is a problem, just like before when you referred to "false national traditions."

Your example below can be streamlined and re-worded as "someone is trying to convince me that a war happened." See the difference made by taking out "fictitious"? We're now not assuming in advance that the war is fictitious. Without this assumption, we see that convincing the listener is going to take place at the levels of evidence and argumentation. If a war happened then there perhaps should be some evidence, but what kind and of what volume? Who is the source? Perhaps I feel comfortable believing this source alone because of his qualifications and training. The "problem of missing evidence" will not necessarily prevent one from believing him depending on (1) what kinds of evidence can be reasonably expected to exist at the time and (2) the authority of the source.

These two factors adhere as well to the second example you give. We could add a third: (3) benefit conferred by belief. If accepting the belief helps the listener become more friendly with the source, perhaps because that source is politically influential, then the listener may be more inclined to accept what the source says without further question. Or perhaps the source's statements align well with the preconceptions and ideology of the listener--it's well-documented that people will not be as skeptical when they encounter statements that match their prejudices.

When we remove the presupposition that the proposed event is false, we see more clearly that formation of beliefs involves more than simply the truth of (all/some of) the event. Kuzari is critically flawed, in my opinion, because it makes truth/falsehood part of the principle's foundation--when the listener really is not in a very good position at all to assess truth or falsehood.
In the end, what does this dialogue leave us with? Just a story. That's all we have of Sinai. No proof. No evidence. Just a story. Those who want to believe the story may find the Kuzari Principle impressive. I don't. My reasons for this have been stated before, but let me also suggest that items (3) and (4) in the NET criteria may not necessarily hold for Sinai. I am unaware of evidence that suggests the first hearers of the story, in whatever form, understood it as historically accurate and true. They may as well have understood it as partly or fully figurative--a literary exaggeration to make a point. So also do we not know the real relation of the story's first hearers and the characters in the story.

This has been a fun discussion, but unfortunately it has borne little fruit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We Live in/and Work

I have been away from the ol' blog and ol' Whitman since the end of July. Let's see if I can pick up things again.

On page 20 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, we conclude what I'll call the swimming hole episode of the poem. It's, well, the climax of the episode, with a lonely woman mysteriously unobserved as she swims among the young men-folk:
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun . . . . they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
The poet then visits a butcher-boy and some balcksmiths:
The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and breakdown.
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,
Each has his main-sledge . . . . they are all out . . . . there is a great heat in the fire.

From the cinder-strewed threshold I follow their movements,
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms,
Overhand the hammers roll—overhand so slow—overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place.
That "or" at the top of the line fascinates me. Whitman's poet, the conjunction reminds us, is a conjurer or is perhaps straining to see the poetic vision. The scenes we get are not simply given. They are not just "there." The poet works as surely as the subjects in/of the poem work. As readers, our role is seemingly to follow the poet's labor as the poet follows the labor of others. Each following provides a lesson, a feature of living worth admiration and note.

The poet keeps us thinking about the work itself as well as the active bodies performing the work:
The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses . . . . the block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the huge dray of the stoneyard . . . . steady and tall he stands poised on one leg on the stringpiece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hipband,
His glance is calm and commanding . . . . he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache . . . . falls on the black of his polish'd and perfect limbs.

I behold the picturesque giant and love him . . . . and I do not stop there,
I go with the team also.

In me the caresser of life wherever moving . . . . backward as well as forward slueing,
To niches aside and junior bending.

Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade, what is that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.
The body at work is vitally expressive for Whitman. Poetry--"in me," in the poet--moves too, swerves too. Poetry is a "caresser of life," or perhaps a deity is meant here. But it is the body, the conjured body that acts, which makes value.

Come to the end of the page and we're contemplating animals. We've seen horses and oxen. Now, we see birds:
My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and daylong ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
. . . . I believe in those winged purposes,
And acknowledge the red yellow and white playing within me,
And consider the green and violet and the tufted crown intentional;
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the mockingbird in the swamp never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.
The striking line is "I believe in those winged purposes." What can be meant here? Does it relate to the "intentional" crown of the birds' heads? Is the poet talking about a designed and ordered world, a world in the guiding hands of God? Do the ellipses preceding the assertion of belief signify a gathering certainty or a moment of doubt?

By the end of this page, the poet has brought us back to a sense of grandeur and urgency. These expressions, these labors, are not just beautiful and mighty. They are terrible and serious also.

As readers, we are never allowed by the poet to get lost, although we may get immersed. We must ever recall our purposes and fulfill the roles we can. We will not "call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else," and we will not reject our role as reader because it is not another one--the role of poet, for example. In other words, we will accept our role for what it is, for what doing it allows us to express.