[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.In this note, he includes relevant selections from his previous writings, and he also gives a link. Here is my response to him:
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.
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.I really thought we were done at this point, but no....
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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:
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.
Perhaps we can test our commuinicatin by focusing on one very small opint. I write:I say back:
a. Assume there are no historical parallels - no known false national traditions of national unforgettables - no known false NETs. .
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?
You ask: "Can you explain how your wrods [sic] are at all related to mine?"He then sends me this response:
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.
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?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.
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.
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.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.
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.
This has been a fun discussion, but unfortunately it has borne little fruit.