Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Quiz: Which Is the Better Love?

Which of the propositions below is morally preferable, and why?

A. I love you because God tells me to.
B. I love you because of the kind of person you are.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is Religion a Path to Wisdom?

Yesterday, the Boston Globe featured an article by Stephen Prothero called "Separate Truths." Prothero is a religion professor at Boston University. This article is adapted from his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter.

Here is the entire article:
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to “All Religions Are One” (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.

This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”

Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars. Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge in dogma, rites, and institutions. To claim that all religions are basically the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences between a Buddhist who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God, and a Hindu who believes in many gods. It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions.

But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.
I'll interrupt here because I think this last paragraph makes a terrific point...and the point is sin.

My understanding of Christianity has always been that it's fundamentally and inextricably linked to this awful concept of sin. Now, I have never been a Christian, but I think I could never ever have been one because I could never accept the concept. There's no reasoning that explains how people could possibly inherit the sin and sinful nature of Adam and Eve. It's just a patently ridiculous claim, and I see it as profoundly contrary to the principles of American liberty.

I have been struggling to articulate the Jewish corollary to this, and I suppose it's the idea that we're away from our promised home in Israel. This is, of course, also a stupid idea, assuming I've represented it correctly.
So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.

Christians see sin as the human problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the goal. Confucians see social disorder as the problem, and social harmony as the goal. And so it goes from tradition to tradition, with Hindus seeking release from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, Muslims seeking paradise via submission to Allah, and practitioners of the Yoruba religion seeking sacred connections — among humans, between humans and the persons of power they call the orishas, and between humans and the natural environment.

The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal. In Confucianism, the rules and rituals of ancient Chinese civilization foster the religious goal of social harmony. But according to Daoists, these very rules and rituals cause the human problem of lifelessness. Civilization is a vampire, Daoists claim, sucking the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy), and taking us to an early grave. The only way to pursue the Daoist goal of fostering life is to live in harmony with the naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity of what Daoists call the Way.

Finally, each of the world’s religions looks to different exemplars — Christian saints, Hindi holy men — to chart the path from problem to goal. Inside Buddhism alone, these exemplars include the arhat (for Theravadins), the bodhisattva (for Mahayanists), and the lama (for Tibetan Buddhists).

For more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion. They thought they found this Holy Grail in God, but then they discovered Buddhists and Jains who deny God’s existence. Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share. What they share are family resemblances — tendencies toward this belief or that behavior. In the family of religions, kin tend to perform rituals. They tend to tell stories about how life and death began and to write down these stories in scriptures. They tend to cultivate techniques of ecstasy and devotion. They tend to organize themselves into institutions and to gather in sacred places at sacred times. They tend to instruct human beings how to act toward one another. They tend to profess beliefs about the gods and the supernatural. They tend to invest objects and places with sacred import.

These family resemblances are just tendencies, however. Just as there are tall people in short families (none of the other men in Michael Jordan’s family was over 6 feet tall), there are religions that deny the existence of God and religions that get along just fine without creeds. Something is a religion when it shares enough of this DNA to belong to the family of religions. What makes the members of this family different (and themselves) is how they mix and match these dimensions. Experience is central in Daoism and Buddhism. Hinduism and Judaism emphasize the narrative dimension. The ethical dimension is crucial in Confucianism. The Islamic and Yoruba traditions are to a great extent about ritual. And doctrine is particularly important to Christians.

There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers who assume that salvation is the goal of all religions and then argue that only Christians can achieve this goal. Philosopher of religion Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption. “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion,” he wrote, “is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.” It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved. But this statement is confused to the core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek. Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim. When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation.

A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: Basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink putts. To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.

So here is another problem with the pretend pluralism of the perennial philosophy sort: Just as hitting home runs is the monopoly of one sport, salvation is the monopoly of one religion. If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ. But that will not settle as much as you might think, because the real question is not which religion is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. Should we be trudging toward the end zone of salvation, or trying to reach the finish line of social harmony? Should our goal be reincarnation? Or to escape from the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth?

While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap. You would think that champions of multiculturalism would warm to this fact, glorying in the diversity inside and across religious traditions. But even among multiculturalists, the tendency is to pretend that the differences between religions are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don’t warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them.

We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. False rumors of weapons of mass destruction doubtless led the United States to wade into its current quagmire in Iraq. Another factor, however, was our ignorance of the fundamental disagreements between Christians and Muslims, on the one hand, and Sunni and Shia Islam, on the other. What if we had been aware of these conflicts as of 9/11? Would we have committed 160,000 troops to a nation whose language we do not speak and whose religion we do not understand?

What we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What Will Happen in the MA/US Housing Market?

[A Recent "Jump" in the Housing Market]

An AP story in today's reports: "Sales of new homes surged 27 percent last month, bouncing off the previous month's record low and blowing past expectations as government incentives and better weather boosted sales."

Not everyone views this jump as good news. One pseudonymous commenter writes:
This is a blimp [sic] on the radar cause [sic] by the government! Here are the reasons why the housing market will continue to drop:

1. Fed's 8K house credit will end in April.
2. 10% unemployment with a higher under employment rate.
3. Fed ended the purchase of 1.2 trillion dollars of mortgage backed securities.
4. Higher percentage of people underwater. This will only mean more strategic foreclosures.
5. Feds to raise interest rate in the near future.
6. Lending standards will continue to tighten especially when Feds are no longer a player in the mortgage business.
7. In today's market, the average income cannot buy the average house.
8. More ARMs will reset this year and next year.

Buying a house now is like catching a falling knife! I find it ironic that our government caused this mess by trying to legislate "affordable housing" and now trying to legislate unaffordable housing.
Let's wait and see if the predictions bear out!


UPDATE: Last year I posted about a prediction that came to me in the form of an email sales pitch. The emailer predicted a dramatic rise in mortgage defaults and foreclosures. Around that time, was reporting:
According to the MBA's quarterly National Delinquency Survey, 1.37% of mortgages entered the foreclosure process in the first quarter, up from 1.08% in the fourth quarter.

Total foreclosure inventory was also up, with 3.85% of all mortgages somewhere in the foreclosure process at the end of the first quarter, compared with 3.3% in the fourth quarter -- also a record jump. The delinquency rate, which includes loans that are at least one payment past due but not those in foreclosure, was a seasonally adjusted 9.12%, up from 7.88% in the fourth quarter.

The Washington-based MBA survey covers 45 million mortgages, representing between 80% and 85% of all first-lien residential mortgages outstanding in the United States.
Here is data from February 19 of this year:
The delinquency rate for mortgages on one- to four-unit residential properties was a seasonally adjusted 9.47% of all mortgages outstanding in the fourth quarter, down from 9.64% in the third quarter and up from 7.88% in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the MBA's quarterly delinquency survey. Delinquencies include mortgages that are at least one payment or more past due but not yet in foreclosure.

Meanwhile, 1.2% of outstanding mortgages entered the foreclosure process in the fourth quarter, down from 1.42% in the third quarter and up from 1.08% in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The percentage of mortgages at some point in the foreclosure process at the end of the fourth quarter was 4.58%, up from 4.47% in the third quarter and 3.3% in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Although I think the seller inflated language a bit, I'd say the prediction was accurate, by and large.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kuzari Principle: The Sinai Argument

Previously, I introduced the Kuzari Principle and its application to the alleged Mount Sinai revelation. This was intentionally a sketch, an outline of the argument. In this installment, however, I want to look again at Kuzari to examine its details. My aim now is to achieve a faithful expression of Kuzari. I will not criticize it or raise objections, as these will be the subject of a later post.

The Kuzari Principle is derived from The Book of the Khazars, a 12th century philosophical work by Judah Halevi. In the first part of the work, the King of the Khazars and a rabbi discuss the nature and origin of Jewish knowledge, including the reckoning of the date of the world and the way to verify true reports:
46. Al Khazari: What date do you consider it at present?

47. The Rabbi: Four thousand and nine hundred years. The details can be demonstrated from the lives of Adam, Seth and Enōsh to Noah; then Shem and Eber to Abraham; then Isaac and Jacob to Moses. All of them represented the essence and purity of Adam on account of their intimacy with God. Each of them had children only to be compared to them outwardly, but not really like them, and, therefore, without direct union with the divine influence. The chronology was established through the medium of those sainted persons who were only single individuals, and not a crowd, until Jacob begat the Twelve Tribes, who were all under this divine influence. Thus the divine element reached a multitude of persons who carried the records further. The chronology of those who lived before these has been handed down to us by Moses..

48. Al Khazari: An arrangement of this kind removes any suspicion of untruth or common plot. Not ten people could discuss such a thing without disagreeing, and disclosing their secret understanding; nor could they refute any one who tried to establish the truth of a matter like this. How is it possible where such a mass of people is concerned? Finally, the period involved is not large enough to admit untruth and fiction.

49. The Rabbi: That is so. Abraham himself lived during the period of the separation of languages. He and his relatives retained the language of his grandfather Eber, which for that reason is called Hebrew. Four hundred years after him appeared Moses at a time when the world was rich in information concerning the heavens and earth. He approached Pharaoh and the Doctors of Egypt, as well as those of the Israelites. Whilst agreeing with him they questioned him, and completely refused to believe that God spoke with man, until he caused them to hear the Ten Words. In the same way the people were on his side, not from ignorance, but on account of the knowledge they possessed. They feared magic and astrological arts, and similar snares, things which, like deceit, do not bear close examination, whereas the divine might is like pure gold, ever increasing in brilliancy. How could one imagine that an attempt had been made to show that a language spoken five hundred years previously was none but Eber's own language split up in Babel during the days of Peleg; also to trace the origin of this or that nation back to Shem or Ham, and the same with their countries? Is it likely that any one could to-day invent false statements concerning the origin, history, and languages of well-known nations, the latter being less than five hundred years old?

50. Al Khazari: This is not possible. How could it be, since we possess books in the handwriting of their authors written five hundred years ago? No false interpolation could enter the contents of a book which is not above five hundred years of age, such as genealogical tables, linguistic and other works. [Emphasis added]
The argument emerging from this section concerns the transmission of historical knowledge--from single individuals in a line to Moses. Al Khazari sees the single line as a reason for believing what the rabbi says; more than one transmitter would introduce the risks of lies, spin, and "common plot." In paragraph 50, Al Khazar seems to believe that social memory is good enough to retain accuracy within 500 years and to prevent historical invention from creeping in.

Transmission of true knowledge and prevention/identification of fabricated history remain important themes in Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's formulation of Kuzari:
in modern language the principle that the Kuzari uses is as follows. I beg you to look at it, hear it, and pay close attention to all of its details. Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred. [Emphasis in original]
In my opinion, Gottlieb gives the best expression of the modern Kuzari Principle. His call for us to pay attention to his formulation, however, suggests that Kuzari may be open to misinterpretation. Thus, to reduce the chance of misunderstanding, let us begin by breaking down the bolded portion:

(1) E is a possible event.
(2) E is an event such that its occurrence leaves behind enormous, easily available evidence.
(3) If no such evidence exists, people will not believe that E occurred.

The breakdown above departs from Gottlieb’s Kuzari formulation at (2). In order to highlight the salient features of event E, I have decided to use present indicative rather than the subjunctive that was given to us. The important feature of E is that if it really occurs, it must leave behind enormous, easily available evidence. If I have interpreted Gottlieb’s formulation correctly, a (although perhaps not the only) Sinai-oriented syllogism might go like this:

(4) Major premise: Sinai is the type of event that should have left behind enormous, easily available evidence if it occurred.
(5) Minor premise: A type of enormous, easily available evidence actually exists.
(6) Conclusion: Aware of this evidence, people believe that Sinai really occurred.
(7) Implication: The existence of the enormous, easily available evidence favors the probability that a Sinai event actually occurred.

Gottlieb also has a slightly different argument that applies directly to Sinai:
Suppose A invents a story about a national unforgettable and tries to convince B that it happened. Suppose further that B and his nation do not remember the event, and A gives no explanation why the event would not be remembered. Then B will not believe the story.
The syllogism here might run like this:

(8) Major premise: Religious leaders (A) invent a story about Sinai, an event they say was public, national, and absolutely unique (literally).
(9) Minor premise: Members of the public (B) do not remember Sinai having occurred.
(10) Minor premise: Religious leaders provide no explanation why the event would not be remembered.
(11) Conclusion: Members of the public will not believe that Sinai actually occurred [with no memory of the event and no explanation of why the event would not be remembered].
(12) Implication: The story of the Sinai event was likely unable to be invented/fabricated.

With these two syllogisms, I assert confidently that we have the proper grounding for Kuzari, particularly as it applies to the Sinai event. Following Kuzari, the belief of Jewish people--up to the Jewish Enlightenment--supports the likelihood of Sinai’s having happened. The people would not have believed for so long if there was no evidence. Furthermore, the Sinai story could not have been introduced later because people would have wondered why they didn’t know before about the story, and no explanation would be able to account for a “national unforgettable” (Gottlieb’s term).

Thus, with this grounding established, we can turn in the next installment to questions about Kuzari and its logic.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Answers to 10 Questions for Your Pastor

On another blog, I saw these challenging questions. Although the questions are aimed at the Christian believer -- and I am neither -- I think it's a useful exercise for the Atheist to take a crack at them, too.

Here goes.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?
My answer: Because people seek the interpretation that accords best with their axioms. If God's loving-kindness is taken as axiomatic, then an answer can be devised to fit with it.
2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?
My answer: No, not really. This is quite a horrible idea.
3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?
My answer: Because we know our world better than ancient people did. We know its geography, peoples, history, and physical laws better than they did. We understand human biology better and we have better medicine. We today can communicate both with people we know and whom we don't know across great distances. Our modern mindset is quite different from the ancient mindset, such that I doubt we can conceive of God or "the supernatural" in quite the same way as people actually did in biblical times. We don't see miracles now because we have learned there really aren't any
4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?
My answer: Because the modern faithful believe their teachers. Then, they believe the teachings of the teachers. They find little reason to challenge either because most everyone around them seems like a believer.
5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?
My answer: Because they distrust science and prefer the idea that "some things are forever beyond the grasp of human design."
6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of confusing and misleading generations of people by setting up a religion called Judaism which he knew in advance would prove to be inadequate?
My answer: Dramatic license?
7. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?
My answer: I think it would rather show that God failed in his creation. He should have made better creatures. And what happens to all the little animals?
8. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)
My answer: Because it's more satisfying to hit a baseball that's been pitched to you than one resting on a tee. I think this might be an answer of great sublimity...or utter horseshit.
9. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?
My answer: No way. But the Stalinist thing is part and parcel of the God job.
10. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?
My answer: Yes, I would do it. God has not because he cannot.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's Actually a Lifestyle

Critics think they are beating up on atheism by calling it a religion, a worldview, or an ideology. Sure. I agree it can hold some properties of any of these things.

For me, the logic that has led to atheism also leads to the maxim that our lives and our lifestyles are up to us -- within legal and moral boundaries, of course. Our health, fitness, and well-being do not come by the grace of God but by our own daily behavior. They come by our own efforts.

Surely, sometimes our efforts are not good enough at a particular moment. Surprises, chance occurrences, and mistakes crop up and force us to adjust our behavior temporarily or permanently.

We are in charge of our lives, if not always (or ever!) in control. The religious like to say that God is in control or the universe is in control. I disagree with this, but the practical result is the same: each of us lives by choice and subject to chance.

I'm back to lifting as well as running, although I have been running with my 7-year-old daughter, so we tend to do more jogging than actual running. But don't get me wrong: I'll take jogging with my daughter every time over running by myself. When she and I are out on the road together, I tell her that this is the only today we get, so we might as well push ourselves to do better than ever. And then we run hard to the finish.

Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, captures this same idea eloquently in a talk he gave to the Harvard Humanist Society:
Here are a few things I've learned.

Prayer doesn't work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening. I've paid attention. I've pictured what I want to happen in my life. I've meditated extensively on my family, my future, my past actions and what did and didn't work for me about them. I've looked hard at problems and thought hard about their solutions.

See, I order my life by the same mechanism that I use to build things. I cannot proceed to move tools around in the real world until my brain has a clear picture in it of what I'm building. The same goes for my life. I've tried to pay attention. I've tried to picture the way I want things to be, and I've noticed that when I had a clear picture, things often turned out the way I wanted them to.

I've concluded by this that someone is paying attention—I've concluded that it's me. I've noticed that if I'm paying attention to those around me, to myself, to my surroundings, then that is the very definition of empathy. I've noticed that when I pay attention, I'm less selfish, I'm happier—and that the inverse holds true as well.

I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody's going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you're here. And when you don't, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I'm performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody's going to take care of us, it's incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That's community.
Yes, life is cool. Living is cooler. Run hard while we can...but better to stay together.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Kuzari Principle: Ultimate Proof of God’s Existence?

Judah Halevi (c.1075–1141), Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher; author of the Book of the Khazars.

This is the first of several posts I plan to make on the Kuzari Principle, a line of reasoning often used to assert the truth of Judaism and the relative weakness of other religions.

To proponents, Kuzari provides a strong reason to believe that it would be impossible to hoax a story such as the Torah's account of the Mt. Sinai event, the National Revelation. Note that the argument concerns both the story and the event itself: Kuzari says they could not be faked and therefore both must be true.

My intent now is to give a brief and simple introduction to Kuzari. Future posts will examine Kuzari closely and assess its strengths and weaknesses as a logical argument.

What Is the Kuzari Principle?

According to Wikipedia, the Kuzari Principle
is a line of philosophic reasoning derived from the medieval work Kuzari. This principle claims to logically prove the historicity of major events recorded in the Bible from the nature of the belief in them. More specifically, it is argued that one can prove from the oral testimony of the story itself that some three million Israelites personally were led out of Egypt in an Exodus, and witnessed God's revelation to them at Mount Sinai, thus establishing the proof of the events discussed in the Torah.
David Yust views Kuzari negatively in a Talk Reason article (2002):
The Kuzari principle (KP) is a formal argument (whose ambiguous nature will be discussed further on) universally adopted by Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic proof of the truth and exclusivity of the Jewish faith. In this sense, the KP is a materialized ideal. The invention of the KP is attributed to the famous 11th-12th century Jewish-Spanish poet and philosopher Yehudah Halevi, who allegedly formulated it in his Kuzari treatise (hence the name). Genetically, the KP may be traced to a vague sentence in the Pentateuch which enjoins the Jews to tell their sons about the Exodus from Egypt. A century after Halevi it was reiterated – again in a rather vague form – by the outstanding Jewish thinker and Pentateuch commentator Nahmanides.
In today's cyberspace, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb appears to be the foremost champion of the Kuzari Principle. Gottlieb, incidentally, is no joke. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematical logic at Brandeis University. He was Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Today, as far as I know, he is a senior faculty member at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. Here is Gottlieb's introductory illustration (1997) to the Kuzari argument (he goes into much more detail later):
Take, for example, the revelation at Sinai. There are people who believe that the revelation at Sinai occurred. I'm not going to assume that because people believed it that it must have occurred. That is called "begging the question." However, it is a fact that there are people who believe it occurred.

Now they believe it because the previous generation taught it to them. Likewise, that generation believes it because the previous generation taught it to them. So you have a chain of generations of believers going back in time. That is a fact. The question then is, how did the chain get started? Who were the first believers? How did they arrive at their belief?

Again, oversimplifying, (this is only the outline): There are two broad possibilities. One: the event at Sinai took place and people witnessed it, and that caused their belief. Or two: the event did not take place. If the event did not take place, then someone invented the story and convinced the people to believe it.

The Kuzari's argument proceeds by investigating the second alternative, that the event didn't happen, that the story was made up and was sold. The argument shows that the second alternative is not credible. It is not credible to believe that the story was made up and then sold. If you can defeat the second alternative, that leaves only the first alternative, that it happened and was witnessed. That is the structure of the argument.
A recent application of Kuzari to the Sinai event is Betzalel Avraham Feinstein's (2009). Feinstein mentions that his post had benefited from feedback by Rabbi Gottlieb:
A) At least 600,000 Israelites gathered at the bottom of Mount Sinai over 3,300 years ago.

B) All of the Israelites heard G-d speak to them at Mount Sinai, and they then asked Moses to be His prophet.

C) Moses received the entire Torah from G-d and taught the Torah to all of the Israelites standing at Mount Sinai.

D) The Israelites transmitted the Torah and also the history of the transmission process of the Torah from generation to generation in an unbroken chain of generations for over 3,300 years until today, with at least one hundred thousand Israelites in each generation of the chain.
[boldface in original]
With this background, we have a good-enough understanding of the Kuzari Principle and its application. In the next installment, I will introduce Rabbi Gottlieb's modern formulation of Kuzari.

In the meantime, feedback is invited!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Growing in Reason: Talking to Children About Unbelief

One thing in my life that excites me is the native intelligence of my children. For example, just this weekend my older daughter lost a tooth, her third or fourth. That night, she put her tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy. Next morning, she found one dollar. Later on, she suggested that she thought maybe Mommy or me had been giving her money for the teeth. I told her the truth, and she seemed happy to have figured it out first.

One day, maybe soon, she'll want to talk to me about God. She'll ask why I don't believe in God. What will I tell her?

(1) "Believe in God" is the wrong expression. I believe in you. I don't believe that God exists.

(2) You've gone to temple/church/whatever. You have seen people you know and love who pray to God as if He really existed. You have been told stories that are presented as true, as if they really happened. But the fact is that no one knows whether God truly exists. The stories started a long time ago and they have undergone many changes. Many people believe the stories because they believe what they are told by others whom they love and respect. Many people like all the friends they have in the group of believers. Many people like the idea that even when they are alone, they can have someone who sees them and is interested in what they do. But what people like and what's true are not always the same thing. People may want the stories to be true, but that does not mean they are true.

(3) There are many, many religions. There are also many, many gods. Most every group that's ever been has tried to explain the world by using gods to be responsible for the things that came before. Our planet and our universe are wonderful things, and it's not easy to discover how they got to be the way they are. Every religion thinks that its god is the answer and that all the other religions are wrong.

(4) We are learning so much about the universe, the world, and humanity. We use scientific methods to help us separate what might really be true from what we think might be true. And the more we learn, the more wonderful it all seems. On the other hand, with everything we learn, it becomes less likely that God really exists. No God and no heaven, but no devil and no hell either.

(5) We have each other. We have our lives together. We have our minds. We have our dreams. All of this is real enough. We talk to each other and we talk to ourselves. We laugh and we share. We sing and we learn. Why wonder about God when our lives are already filled with wonder?

(6) You are my child and I am your father. This is always true, no matter what you or I believe about God/no-God. As we live, learn, change, and move on, we'll think many things. We'll believe many things. We'll settle matters and then later overturn them. But you are always my child and I am always your father. This is one true thing, and that's all we need to build happy lives.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It's National Poetry Month

April is, appropriately, National Poetry Month.

The video below has Charles Bernstein demonstrating what makes a poem.

A radio station in my area has asked for poetry submissions, which then get entered into a drawing for prizes. Some of the poetry is being read on the air. Here's what I submitted:
On “The Madonna of Frydek”

The first note is sad and soft
And harsh
And then

She walks among open streets
Her expression only hints
How powerfully light
She is
And then

She may swim
In a city pool
In a medieval building
In a land
Of museums

The notes fade
The theme ascends
It gains weight
It asks a question
It loves her
And then wants
Her happiness.