Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where My Faith Lives (The Song So Far, Q3)

"Have a Little Faith in Me": I think of this song as my son's theme.

He's a wonderful, sweet boy and bright as can be. He also has a sensory processing disorder which is not debilitating but gets in the way of his communication and learning.

My prediction and belief is that he's going to be just fine. His mom and I will help him succeed on his terms. His sisters, too. We'll all succeed together. I have more than a little faith in him and in all of us.

Here is Bill Frisell's version of the same song. Lacking Hiatt's voice, it's not quite as soulful yet builds upon its own gentle power.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ultimate Meaning Is Not the End of the Story

[Dad and Hannah visiting Mom and newly-born Emily in the hospital. It doesn't matter, according to Pastor Rick Warren.]

This series emerged from my curiosity about the argument that materialism implies there is no ultimate meaning.

At first, I wanted to understand the connection between materialism and ultimate meaning. That is, I wanted to know what about materialism made ultimate meaning impossible.

The connection between the two concepts, as I discovered, hinges on two different yet related explanations for human life generally. The first explanation is that materialism makes it impossible for humans to have been created by God (that is, God as typically conceived in Western societies claiming a Judeo-Christian heritage). The second explanation is that materialism demands that humans are exclusively products of natural operations—including environmental and ecological events, as well as small-scale chemical and physical interactions—and social forces.

However, the explanations above leave out the critical matter of ultimate meaning, and my curiosity had come to focus on knowing what ultimate meaning was. The analysis I eventually struck upon defined ultimate meaning as being God’s intentions for humans and humanity generally. Thus, God intends that an individual do or become something specific. A person, every person, has a destiny in human history and a place in the universe. Not only a place, but a place that is important to the one supreme being in all the vast universe. Best of all, a person can discover this destiny through the Bible, its authorized teachers and leaders, and its prescribed (or, not prohibited) rituals and observances.

To return to--and complete--the syllogisms I started in earlier installments:
  • If materialism is true, then God did not create us and we are natural-social products.
  • If God did not create us and we are natural-social products, then humans and human beings have no intentional cause and no personal means of discovering the transcendent intentions behind one’s life.
  • If materialism is true, then human life is a brute fact and human learning is catch-as-catch-can.

Many people find it undesirable that human life would be unintended. These people, in my experience, translate their revulsion of the idea into several other arguments, such as those we saw briefly from Pastor Rick Warren. These people suggest that if materialism is true, then human lives don’t matter.

It may indeed be true that our lives don’t matter in the workings of an unimaginably great universe. The life, wealth, goodness, and beauty of a single human being in the 12th century may not seem important from two or six or six-hundred galaxies away.

But is this the end of the story? If you volunteer time at a soup kitchen, or if you decide to work late rather than helping your child with homework, or if you share a laugh with someone who had before been sad—is the final word that these actions and decisions are not very important from six hundred galaxies away?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Understanding Ultimate Meaning

This post continues my series of explorations, ideas, and observations on “ultimate meaning.”

I find the topic fascinating partly because I’m confused by other people’s assertions, such as “If materialism is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.” I don’t clearly understand what the word meaning actually refers to, let alone ultimate meaning.

Terminology is a bear in discussions of atheism, religion, and generally philosophical subjects. People use common words without pausing either to define these words or to consider that the definitions may be problematic. This inattention to clear and consistent language keeps such discussions interminable (and yet still interesting).

In linguistics, the concept of meaning is complicated and subject to many philosophical disputes. Semantic theories and foundational theories explain the nature, origins, and conditions of meaning. I will not review these theories now, but I recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Theories of Meaning.”

However, human lives do not correspond very well to the linguistic model because we are not like words or statements in a grand utterance. If we were, then we would have to figure out the how linguistic concepts such as phonemes, morphemes, syntax, dialects, and grammar. Undoubtedly, some enterprising intellects could draw all the parallels between humanity and language, but I wonder whether parsimony would wisely demand that we let the analogy go.

Some might look to video games as a better model. Games incorporate language, coding, and visual complexities. So, perhaps our lives have meaning in the sense that we are characters, encoded with certain properties, interacting in a similarly encoded world.

I don’t like the gaming model much better than the linguistic model. If our lives are encoded in the universe, who are the players in this scenario? What are “points”? Are there other levels in the game or even other games? Can games be re-started or turned off?

Again, as with language, gaming provides a good yet limited understanding of human lives and meaning. Knowing the imperfection of our analogies, we can nevertheless proceed to describe meaning in terms of language and/or gaming to get a good understanding of why the concept is so important to many theists and anti-atheists.

After some research--as compared to dissertation-level research--I have provisionally accepted Paul Grice’s foundational theory of linguistic meaning as the best tool for assessing meaning in the context of human life. What I like about the Gricean model is that meaning traces back to a speaker’s communicative intentions.

A classic example:
imagine you are stopped at night at an intersection, when the driver in an oncoming car flashes her lights. You reason as follows: “Why is she doing that? Oh, she must intend me to believe that my lights are not on. If she has that intention, it must be that my lights are not on. So, they are not.” To summarize:

The driver flashes her lights intending
  1. that you believe that your lights are not on;
  2. that you recognize her intention;
  3. that this recognition be part of your reason for believing that your lights are not on.

Call such an intention an M-intention. Grice's idea is that an utterer U means that p by uttering x if and only if U M-intends that p by uttering x. Utterances may include, not just sounds and marks but also gesture, grunts, and groans--anything that can signal an M-intention. The example illustrates an indicative M-intention; such intentions may also be imperative. In such a case, the utterer intends to get the audience to perform an action.
In my understanding of the Gricean model, the analysis of Judeo-Christian meaning for human lives can be expressed as follows:

G means n by creating h iff G intends in creating h that
  1. G’s humans come to believe n.
  2. G’s humans recognize this intention.
  3. (1) occurs on the basis of (2).
Although my formulation above may need tweaks, I think I now have a firm basis for meaning and meaninglessness. In the theistic schema focusing on human lives, meaning consists of (a) recognizing that God has certain intentions for our lives and (b) believing that humans have a way (or ways) to gain awareness of God’s intentions. The theist thereby evaluates life in terms of feeling aligned with God’s intentions, intentions which are not declared outright but accessible only through activities that one deems as being mandated by God or God’s earthly emissaries. These activities include biblical study, practical application of the Bible to daily life, prayer, observance of prescribed rituals, volunteering with and donations to certain organizations, and presentation of one’s children to the religious community.

God’s intentions for humans and humanity, therefore, are the ultimate meaning. Ultimate carries the senses of superiority and finality. It also serves as an organizing concept. Ultimate meaning is stable. It never changes. It’s the same in every context. Because it is stable, every other type of meaning encountered in life—meaning from people, from books, from emerging fields of knowledge—can be evaluated and reconciled against the ultimate standard.

Perhaps more important is the idea that ultimate meaning becomes known only in certain ways. This prescription seems to serve as a guarantor. People in the community have a certain security that their like-minded neighbors behave in basically acceptable ways and will likely refrain from basically unacceptable behavior. We trust ourselves, not others. The intention behind ultimate meaning, in my opinion, is nothing less than physical security and social predictability.

A meaningless life, on the other hand, is one in which there are no recognizable intentions for one’s life and there are no means of coming to learn of any such intentions. Meaninglessness must be a frightening prospect, then, for anyone who feels the need for overriding guidance and for a sense of instrumental security. For this personality type, a meaningless life truly makes no sense. Such a person can never declare with full confidence that “I’m right” if there’s no final arbiter and authority.

Worse, such a person can never consult a fully authoritative resource to stand in as final judge. That person has no confidence in others because others do not necessarily share the same behavioral code, and if they do, it may be for different reasons.

In a world without ultimate meaning, we cannot be certain we’re right and we cannot blithely assume that our own moral values constitute the best or even the norm. Some people don't like this kind of world and don't accept that its is so. Atheists like myself, on the other hand, find much to appreciate in such a world.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Is a Meaningless Life Worth Living?

Mitchell Heisman

Mitchell Heisman, 35, concluded that life was meaningless. Evidently, he also concluded that his own death was preferable to his own life.

He went to Memorial Church at Harvard University, where hundreds had gathered to observe Yom Kippur, and he used a revolver to shoot and kill himself.

He left behind a 1,900-page monograph--a result of five years' labor which he posthumously emailed, using a scheduler, to family and others.

His book-length work concludes:
Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless. The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.
Perhaps some bloggers and commentators will cite a connection between Heisman, atheism, nihilism, and suicide. If people have noticed this story, their conclusion will be that Heisman was merely being honest. Through suicide, they will say, he enacted the logical and inevitable consequence of atheism, nihilism, and materialism. To these arguers, we atheists and/or materialists who are happy individuals live as contradictions. We avoid carrying out what our beliefs tell us we can and should do.

I'll cringe at these arguments, if they come up. However, I will not make a defense here. I will not engage in apologetics. The fact is that there is no need for defense or apologetics: atheists, nihilists, and materialists have nothing to answer for in the case of Mitchell Heisman.

Let's acknowledge that a very bright and unhappy man committed suicide. Let's join with people who mourn those they have known and loved. Although I never met or knew of Mitchell Heisman, I am sorry that he is gone, and I offer genuine sympathy to his family and friends.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What's Better Than Ultimate Meaning?

Last time, I focused on the claim “materialism implies that there is no ultimate meaning.” I wanted to understand what exactly was being asserted. Eventually, I came to this incomplete syllogism:
  • If materialism is true, then X.
  • If X is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.
  • If materialism is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.

Our first concern, the obvious problem, is determining what X might be. Two also-obvious and complementary possibilities present themselves:
  • X = God did not create us.
  • X = We are random products of nature.

I don’t expect any argument on the first possibility, but I may get a question on the second. I think this latter possibility is articulated by, for example, the popular and influential Pastor Rick Warren, who asserts that “if there is no God, then our lives really don’t matter. We are just random accidents of nature, and neither our births, our lives, or our deaths have any meaning or value.”

I give a viewpoint like Warren’s because I want to be clear that I am not creating a straw man argument here. Nevertheless, I think that argument covers over too much to be very useful. Whether “we” refers to humans from an organic or a subjective standpoint, we are products of social interaction and cultural conditions in addition to evolution, biology, chemistry, and physics. Broadening our scope here reveals that “we” are subject to determining forces and not only to random nature.

In other words, we are products of our environment and genes as much as randomness. If materialism is true, then, we are products of social forces and internal and external natural operations all interacting together.

With this adjustment, our under-construction syllogisms now look like this:
  • If materialism is true, then God did not create us. And if God did not create us, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life. Therefore....
  • If materialism is true, then we are products of social forces and internal and external natural operations all interacting together. And if we are products of social forces and internal and external natural operations all interacting together, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life. Therefore....

Our next task will be to get an understanding of the idea of "ultimate meaning." In closing, however, let me say I find Pastor Warren's comment above both disgusting and wrongheaded. So let me ask:
Would you rather
    • Live an extremely unhappy life that "mattered"?
    • Live an extremely happy life that "didn't matter"?

I would rather live a happy life. I would rather my children lived a happy life.

What Gives Meaning to Human Life?

I want to revisit an idea from one of my earlier posts, on materialism. Theists and anti-Atheists argue that materialism implies:
  1. There is no ultimate meaning.
  2. Human lives are meaningless.
This argument is fairly common, so I do not feel the need to provide a number of links and references. I hope that one link will suffice, to the ID website Uncommon Descent. Several comments in the linked thread give one or both implications I identify above.

Returning to the two implications, we see first that the exact claim of #1 needs clarification and second that claim #2 seems obviously to be false.

With #1, I do not see the direct implication of materialism and the absence of ultimate meaning. With # 2, I think it’s obvious that people can themselves determine a meaning or multiple meanings for their lives. Example meanings might include family, occupation, knowledge, and wealth. People can and do live with a sense of priorities and obligations, and these are the hallmarks of meaning.

To clarify #1, we might use the claim in a simple syllogism:
  • If materialism is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.
  • Lack of ultimate meaning is undesirable.
  • Therefore, it is undesirable that materialism would be true.

I think this is a valid argument, but it is unsound. I disagree with the second premise and cannot tell whether the first premise is true. So, although we understand the function of the premise, we’re back to my original confusion. Let’s back into another syllogism by making the premise into a conclusion:
  • If materialism is true, then X.
  • If X is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.
  • If materialism is true, then there is no ultimate meaning to human life.

Our syllogism has succeeded in allowing us to define what we need to understand. Some property of materialism, X, precludes the existence of ultimate meaning such that X and the existence of ultimate meaning cannot both be true. In any case, the syllogism seems to indicate this preclusion. I think it's more prudent to see if we can understand X before assessing the validity of the claim that X and the existence of ultimate meaning exclude each other.

To understand what X is, then, we need to ask and understand what gives meaning--and then ultimate meaning--to human life. In a future post or posts, I hope to explore what specifically might fit into this X position.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Am Atoned, Bitches!

In a previous episode, I wavered on what would be the most appropriate and happy actions for me to take on Yom Kippur.

Unfortunately, I decided against happiness and good sense:
  • I attended some of my local Yom Kippur services. 
    • I skipped Kol Nidre, but attended the morning and Musaf services the next day.
  • I fasted from before 6:30 pm to about 4:30 pm the next day.
  • Up until the time I actually went to services, I considered driving up to the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, NH. I would have really enjoyed that.
  • Services were decent.
    • I always like to sing.
    • The rabbi's stories and jokes were generally good.
      • He made, however, one bad evolution joke, the one about monkey's being on the husband's side of the family.
      • He also brought in, completely seriously, an Omphalos argument.
      • Stories of Jewish martyrs don't inspire me at all but rather point to the seriousness of religious and politically based intolerance.
  • If I ever go to another service, it will be with family. I want to be with my wife and kids, my mother and father, my brothers and nieces/nephews.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kuzari Principle: Index of Posts

[No more Kuzari now. You come back later.]

For reference, here are the articles I posted on the Kuzari Principle and the Sinai revelation:
I sincerely thank Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb for our email exchange. He certainly did not have to deal with me, and I suspect that from his perspective very little new ground was covered.

From my perspective, the posts and the discussion were illuminating. Some last observations:
  1. I would think something labeled as a "principle" would have many examples illustrating it. Kuzari is the only principle I can think of without such real-world instances. However, I could easily be persuaded to see Kuzari as a full-fledged principle: Just show me examples of nations that refused to believe NET stories which were introduced to them as real history.
  2. The case of the atomic bombings reveals the gaping weaknesses of the Sinai story. The eyewitness accounts of Hiroshima, like first-person testimonies in many momentous events, are visceral and immediate. People understand where they were in the critical moment, what they were doing, how it felt to go through what they did. These people talk about their confusion, their fear, and their concern for fellows. The Sinai story, in contrast, reads as craft. It bears all the hallmarks of artifice. It's a detached, omniscient narrative story that is less about national revelation than about a claim to power by self-appointed political and filial descendants of both Moses and Aaron.
  3. Kuzari proponents do all they can to avoid discussing current historical knowledge, biblical scholarship, and archeological science. No wonder, since the convergence of data in these disciplines tends not only to diminish whatever a "real Sinai" might have been but also to highlight the brute fact that we have no empirical data to suggest that there ever was a "real Sinai" at all. 
  4. Ultimately, Sinai is a historical question. To date, the answer is a very strong no. No faux principle is able to circumvent this reality.
  5. Even if the principle were more solid than it is, one central fact of the religious claim for Sinai is that a true divine revelation, a full-blown miracle, is by definition the absolute least likely thing that could ever happen. Sinai is supposed to be utterly unique in human history, meaning that it's in a category of one. There's not another event that could  even be remotely like it. Now I ask you, if we have no evidence today of the single most extraordinary thing that's ever happened in the history of the universe, how much credence is appropriate for me to give?
I hope that further opportunities arise to address Kuzari, but for now the topic is closed.

Chuckle of the Day: Metaphysics

Recently posted on another forum:
Stephen Hawking, one of the most recognized authorities in physics, recently advanced the illogical and nonsensical argument that universes can create themselves out of nothing. Fortunately, Robert Spitzer and a number of other experts in the field of metaphysics refuted his egregious error.
Note that an expert in metaphysics corrected good professor Hawking.

How does one respond? Ah, yes: with Carl Sagan, from The Demon Haunted World:
At a dinner many decades ago, the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to the toast, "To physics and metaphysics." By "metaphysics," people then meant something like philosophy, or truths you could recognize just by thinking about them. They could also have included pseudoscience.

Wood answered along these lines: The physicist has an idea. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He consults the scientific literature. The more he reads, the more promising the idea becomes. Thus prepared, he goes to the laboratory and devises an experiment to test it. The experiment is painstaking. Many
possibilities are checked. The accuracy of measurement is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful experimentation, the idea is found to be worthless. So the physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of error, and moves on to something else.

The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded as he raised his glass high, is not that the practitioners of one are smarter than the practitioners of the other. The difference is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Every Single One, One

Page 23 continues the long litany of personages brought out by our poet.
On the piazza walk five friendly matrons with twined arms;
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
The fare-collector goes through the train—he gives notice by the jingling of loose change,
The floormen are laying the floor—the tinners are tinning the roof—the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gathered . . . . it is the Fourth of July . . . . what salutes of cannon and small arms!
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs and the mower mows and the wintergrain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pikefisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe,
The flatboatmen make fast toward dusk near the cottonwood or pekantrees,
The coon-seekers go now through the regions of the Red river, or through those drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
The torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahoochee or Altamahaw;
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great grandsons around them,
In walls of adobe, in canvass tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport.
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time . . . . the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.
We get individuals (a Missourian, an old husband) and more often we get groups (five friendly matrons, a crew, the city, the living).

From the patriarchs at summer to the city at sleep, we seem to have come to the end of a day, an American day. Sleep intimates death, but all repose “for their time,” a phase that hints at each having a pre-allotted portion. If not a divine allotment, maybe the phrase suggests a human entitlement.

The poet concludes the litany of personages by bringing them into the self. Bringing reciprocates in giving, and the poet declares we are all avatars of one another, “more or less.”

The poet launches out on another litany. If the first, the one just concluded, concentrated on roles and work and the day, the second seems to toss anchors on place.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations— the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off New-foundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
The poet renders each placed person in a larger scheme of e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” The poet’s nation is old and young, maternal and paternal, southerner and Yankee. The poet never forgets the many, the individuality of the many--this element never becomes subsumed into banal oneness, nationality, or patriotism.

In the poet’s reckoning of them, these placed people congregate and constellate around the idea of being “at home.” Each one belongs at the place, in that environment, and immersed in that climate.

More importantly, perhaps, the poet belongs there. The poet belongs in all of those places, but more importantly in each of them. The poet identifies the poet as comrade to the people and the places of the nation, to every single one.

Every single one. Whitman’s poet lives at this highly granular level, sweeping yet extraordinarily delicate and fine. The poet collects people, places, work, and images one at a time. The poet collects and builds from each one, weaving a pattern that connects a startling geographic and temperamental diversity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To Atone or Not to Atone, That Is the Question

[Ron Jeremy doesn't have an answer to my question. Do you?]

This week, falling between the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, presents a new question for me: should I drop going to all Jewish services altogether?

I attended Rosh Hashanah services at my local Chabad house. I enjoyed the services. I found them relaxing, and I liked the songs, the singing, and the structure of liturgical events.

However, I found the prayers themselves to be bland. Their words never appeared more irrelevant and uninspiring to me. I also felt detached from the service and from the community. This was not a bad feeling, really, but as I have reflected on it I have come to question whether I'm up to observing Yom Kippur at all.

After all, I don't have to fast. I don't have to spend all day at services. Do I want to do these things? I'm not sure.

I'm not sure.

Thus, I have a question to answer and a decision to make: whether to do Yom Kippur or drop it.

Any advice or thoughts?

Monday, September 13, 2010

America Is People

If you are wondering, yes, my title makes a joking allusion to Soylent Green.

Any-who, we are on Page 22 of Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass. The whole page concerns people, Americans. The poet observes and describes them:
The young fellow drives the express-wagon . . . . I love him though I do not know him;
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young . . . . some lean on their rifles some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman and takes his position and levels his piece;
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee,
The woollypates hoe in the sugarfield, the overseer views them from his saddle;
The bugle calls in the ballroom, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other;
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roofed garret and harks to the musical rain,
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron,
The reformer ascends the platform, he spouts with his mouth and nose,
The company returns from its excursion, the darkey brings up the rear and bears the well-riddled target,
The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemmed cloth is offering moccasins and beadbags for sale,
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with halfshut eyes bent sideways,
The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers,
The young sister holds out the skein, the elder sister winds it off in a ball and stops now and then for the knots,
The one-year wife is recovering and happy, a week ago she bore her first child,
The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill,
The nine months' gone is in the parturition chamber, her faintness and pains are ad-vancing;
The pavingman leans on his twohanded rammer—the reporter's lead flies swiftly over the notebook—the signpainter is lettering with red and gold,
The canal-boy trots on the towpath—the bookkeeper counts at his desk—the shoemaker waxes his thread,
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptised—the convert is making the first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay . . . . how the white sails sparkle!
The drover watches his drove, he sings out to them that would stray,
The pedlar sweats with his pack on his back—the purchaser higgles about the odd cent,
The camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerreotype,
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minutehand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just-opened lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)
The President holds a cabinet council, he is surrounded by the great secretaries,
The list actually began on the previous page, where the poet talked of Me-ness (for lack of a better term):
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.
The list of people is, I think, an expression of the variety of Me. It is the poet scattering the self, the poet giving the self.

On Page 22, I don't know that I discern a pattern necessarily, but the juxtaposition of some lines seems deliberately provocative in some instances: the dancing gentlemen and the youth, the Wolverine and the reformer, the squaw and the connoisseur, the prostitute and the President.

The poet expresses love, affinity, or alliance with some of the people. The poet's stand with the prostitute is most remarkable, a moral condemnation of the crowd's behavior and a powerful declaration of allegiance. The reflection of the prostitute and her crowd in the President and his cabinet council is political, personal, and human commentary.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Studying Atheism

I have mentioned biblical scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann before and how much I usually like his writing and commentary.

He has a recent piece asking and answering the question "Should Atheism Be Studied?" I like the question because it raises the issue of what the subject of Atheism is, really is.

Is Atheism simply and only "not-religion"? Anti-atheists certainly don't think so, and I don't either. Indeed, Hoffmann points out that in the absence of Atheists defining their subject, their opponents do it for them. To the holy-righteous superheros, people who don't read the right kinds of scripture create a confusion in the world that leads to socialism and terrorism (that is, Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden).

Hoffmann gets to his thesis and raises issues I have recently tackled, namely questions about the use of the "myth" concept and about the real possibility of gods:
In fact, the whole faith-versus-unbelief debate is askew.

The righteous and the right-minded have chosen to draw their battle-line on the map of myth. Yet both sides know that the trigger-question is not whether Genesis is “true” but whether the possibility of a being like God is true. The believer, if he is a profound Christian, says simply yes, because the story is true, it being validated by the power and authority whose story it is. This is not the time to drag out a logic primer or a copy of The God Delusion. Quantum physics? Forget about it.

It is time to be foxier than that. If the answer is yes, because the story says so, then the job of education (something atheists claim to care about) is to examine stories about gods. Not just the one in Genesis--all the stories.
I for one am on board with the idea of examining all the stories about gods. I am pretty sure Daniel Dennett has made specific comments arguing for multi-religion examination, too. Indeed, it seems to me a standard Atheist debating point to mention that the Hebrew/Christian gods are not and have not been the only show in town.

I start to part ways with Hoffmann when he insists that the so-called New Atheists are all about taunts and jests at the rational foibles and real crimes of the religious. To a great extent--the greater extent, I would say--the New Atheists champion education, reason, and method.

Hoffmann gives a brief statement of what Atheists might focus on in their educational wish-list:
If the pious know what they want–school prayer for instance–what should an atheist want that can be taught?

For one thing, atheists should insist on courses in moral development. In the UK, where the idea of church-state separation isn’t quite as sharp-edged as in the Great Republic, classes in “spiritual and physical development” are usual, though the phrase really just means “moral” and physical education–important add-ons to intellectual formation through the standard lens of liberal learning.

Atheists should insist on ethics- or values-education. They should be fighting battles for good textbooks on the subject, texts that do more than offer an unsuspecting sixth- grader the most uninspiring precis of lives lived and thoughts thought– “Plato was an Athenian philosopher of the fifth century bce who is famous for his idea of the ‘forms’. He was also the teacher of fourth-century thinker, Aristotle who was famous for something else….”

Atheists (I stress) need to be interested in the history and development of culture, not just the assumed predominance of science. Culture and science are not the same thing, but they share a story.
On the one hand, I am all for Hoffmann's basic proposal. Pre-college courses on morality, philosophy, and cultural studies would certainly be valuable to students and should be sought by all parents, Atheists and theists. On the other hand, Hoffmann makes no mention of mathematics, science, scientific reasoning, and the history of these disciplines. My impression is that American education is sorely lacking in these areas compared to other national systems.

Indeed, although my own background and training are in the humanities, I think that scientific and mathematical reasoning ought to be primary emphases throughout the education of our schoolchildren. I regard philosophy highly, and I take great personal joy in literature and the arts. But science works.

I also suspect that the pious among us feel that American education already focuses too much on "secular" ethics and values. The pious know what they want: to re-make what we have in their image. To combat secular humanism, materialism, and relativism.

Hoffmann concludes by defining the role of the Atheist and the challenge to Atheists for engaging the educational fight at the ground-level:
The atheist role is to insist that knowledge is not a grand and beautiful tapestry but the story of doubt and the role of doubt in the wider story of human achievement. Can we not teach that? Should we not teach that?

The question isn’t whether atheism “can” be studied, but when atheists are going to come down from the rooftops and begin making telescopes for the rest of us. That is hard work. That is the real challenge.
I have reservations about these points. The atheist role? The? Does identifying as an Atheist mean I must assume this one role at all times and in all places? Must I flatten all my other concerns, interests, inquiries, and contradictions into "the story of doubt"?

And what does Hoffmann mean by his figurative use of rooftops and telescopes? Maybe he means that folks like me should work to get onto local school boards, which is a very good idea. Maybe he has no specific plans formulated but rather means to make a general comment that Atheists are too aloof and elite/elitist.

I wonder whether Hoffmann reads much of the Atheist blogs, which are everywhere and could hardly be more populist. To me, these blogs are precisely the telescopes that he means. They are the best education going. Yes, there's plenty of flotsam and chaff (yeah, yeah) in the blogosphere, but it seems to me that one is no less likely to encounter a quality blog than a dreadful one. The nature of blogs--linked, dialogic, combative--drives even a modestly curious person to many different sources of knowledge and opinion. Eventually, the traveler of the blogosphere realizes that there's no help out there but self-help. There are no given views, just grown ones.

I see blogs as a very helpful and important part of education. Whatever a student wants to learn, whether or not it's in the classroom, can be found on the blogosphere. Atheist blogs are part of what's available to curious minds. It's as full-contact as one can get from behind a computer, as journalism/language writer Roy Peter Clark found out on Language Log:
  • The Internet is not a pleasant little garden. There are more snakes than robins, and no writer should enter without being prepared to be handled roughly, at times venomously.
  • If you are willing to venture in you can learn an awful lot, including from commentators who are, at times, uncivil or worse.
  • When you comment on a person’s work, especially when he or she is not part of the conversation, it’s good to envision that person a real and not virtual – as someone who you might run into the next day on the cafeteria line.
  • In an area as vast as language, there are many so-called discourse communities that sometimes express themselves as factions: linguists, poets, journalists, deconstructionists, semanticists, composition teachers, prescriptivists, descriptivists, free lancers, and many more. All pilgrims should be prepared to encounter reflexive misunderstanding of their motives, values, and intentions
If Hoffmann is talking about Atheists becoming more active at the grassroots level--real communities, schools, and public forums--I agree completely. I think that this is an inevitable progression. In some parts of the US, it's now almost fashionable for people to identify as Atheists. As Atheism becomes more and more a "normal" identity for a greater number of people, many of Hoffmann's recommendations will become part of the mainstream.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Going Nuclear on the Kuzari Principle

[The Hiroshima blast, 1945]

In discussions on the Kuzari Principle (KP), I politely and repeatedly asked Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb to provide me with historical events that he would consider National Experiential Tradition (NET) events. According to Gottlieb, a NET “is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation.” NET is also Gottlieb’s category for Sinai. A key argument for him is that beliefs about NETs don’t form in the same way as mythic beliefs. Ancient Jewish belief about Sinai should be true, he claims, because it’s implausible that a NET belief would arise as myths typically do. Many myths, for instance, emerge as “the gradual transformation of the record of a natural event.” Gottlieb uses Kuzari to argue that the miraculous explanation--an actual divine-human interaction between God and Israel--is the more likely one.

Gottlieb typically challenges critics of the Kuzari Principle to come up with false NETs, and he so challenged me. Initially, I refused to provide an example because my main issue with Kuzari was not NETs but the reasoning being employed by its defenders. That is, my argument was that each of the three elements in Gottlieb's Kuzari argument were flawed:
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.
Only later, and after pressing, did Gottlieb engage me on my assessment of his reasoning. Although I don't think he ever explicitly conceded my point, my opinion remains that the reasoning of Kuzari--both the reasoning of the principle and the reasoning that assumes the principle's validity--makes it a principle of limited and ever-questionable value. In the end, Kuzari attempts to use philosophy to answer a historical question.

On the matter of false NETs, I eventually conceded to Gottlieb that I was unable to think of one:
I do want to address your words, so: I don't know of any false NET events. However, if Sinai is false it would qualify as one.

But my question to you is whether there are any other events, true or false, that qualify as NETs. Does the fall of Troy qualify? Does 9-11? Does Woodstock?
I want now to re-visit the issue of NETs and talk about Gottlieb's curious obsession with false NETs. I get the rhetorical/argumentative game he is playing with demanding false NETs, but I don't understand why he gives no attention at all to real--that is, true--NETs. Indeed, he dismissed my request for real NETs as immaterial.
Finding a Sinai-like event is not relevant, if by Sinai-like you mean national revelation. What is relevant is finding a known false NET, since that category is the content of KP.
Thus the question is why Gottlieb is only interested in a false NET, that is, in a national tradition concerning a very significant national experience that didn’t actually happen. To explore a possible answer to this question (and I have also emailed Gottlieb a link to this article), let's review a case Gottlieb made to me against the applicability of myth formation to NETs, like Sinai:
If myth formation applies to a belief, then of course the belief is not true. Myth formation shows how false beliefs arise. Now THERE ARE NO KNOWN FALSE NET BELIEFS. If myth formation worked in the NET category there should be many NET beliefs that are known false, but there are none. So the evidence that we have of myth formation working is limited to cases that are not NET. The evidence we have is against myth formation applying to NET beliefs since if it did there should be many known false NET beliefs.
For Gottlieb, false NET beliefs would show that the KP is incorrect. False NETs would show that national beliefs can be based on fabrications of nationally witnessed events. Without false NETs, says Gottlieb, KP leads us to conclude that the more plausible case for Sinai is that it actually happened, since it’s more unlikely that a national belief could be made up about direct national ancestors having experienced something unforgettable and life-altering.

Let’s put aside Gottlieb’s argument for a moment and ask what I think is a reasonable and relevant question: “What NETs do we know, true or false?” My rationale for the question is simple: If myth formation does not apply to the emergence of NET beliefs, then perhaps looking at other NET beliefs will help us to understand how they happen and what effects they have. These NET beliefs seem like very interesting phenomena which should be investigated and studied.

Gottlieb says that there are no known false NET beliefs and that these are the only kind of NETs that are relevant to KP. But how can true NET beliefs not be relevant? Wouldn’t true NET beliefs provide positive support for Gottlieb’s argument that such beliefs arise not by myth formation but rather by actually happening? Wouldn’t true NETs clarify why myth formation didn’t work for them? Wouldn’t true NETs demonstrate how nations respond to life-altering events and incorporate these events into traditions, and wouldn’t these demonstrations be helpful in understanding post-Sinai Israel?

Gottlieb’s dismissal of true NETs is therefore very strange. I have been puzzled by his not providing at least one documented NET to show, at the very least, that it can be a genuine category. Thus, I want to look at one event that I think very well qualifies as a NET: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.

Yes, these could be considered two events, but for the sake of argument, we’ll consider it one event. Now, does the bombing qualify as a NET? Absolutely, “it is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation.” There is an annual ceremony in Japan commemorating the event. In fact, this past August the US ambassador to Japan attended the ceremony; it was the first time since the actual event that the US ambassador had done so. Thus, we have solid grounding for there being a national tradition. Now we can hardly think of an experience having a greater change on a nation. In addition to the death, destruction, radiation and after-effects of the blasts, the bombings preceded Japan's unconditional surrender in the war. Following the war, Japan and the US enjoyed good relations, and Japan later became a leader in electronics technologies and manufacturing.

The bombings should be a textbook case for the Kuzari Principle. We have an event that we know really occurred. It left behind “enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence.” If the evidence did not exist, we are hard-pressed to think of how the Japanese people could have believed that it did happen. So why isn’t Gottlieb trumpeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a real-life example of a NET? Surely a main source of belief among the people on the ground lies in the two mushroom clouds over Japan and not in myth formation, just as Gottlieb says the source of belief in Sinai must lie in an awesome event in the desert. With the bombings, he gets a real-life NET, and he also gets to say that there are still no known false NETs.

My hypothesis as to why Gottlieb doesn’t tout Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or any other true NET, is this: “formation of beliefs involves more than simply the truth of (all/some of) the event.” He knows that Kuzari posits a straight line from event to evidence to belief. But the event, the evidence, and the belief all get forked and complicated in real life. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrate how easily complications emerge.

Consider being on the ground near Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki at the time of the bombings. That the atomic bombs were dropped is but one small aspect of the event and the beliefs about it. Immediately following detonation, the people of Japan and the world have only basic knowledge to rely upon. They know that there were two extraordinary explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They know that many people died and were made to suffer. Beyond this basic level, beliefs about the event develop and facts quickly become an issue; they become sites of contest. With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issues include:
  • The number killed: At least one US report lists “many tens of thousands of deaths” while official Japanese records calculate at least 200,000 people. Some historians say “the vast majority of victims [were] women, children and elderly men.”
  • The military efficacy of the bombings: The US position is that the bombings forced immediate Japanese surrender and made a land invasion by the US unnecessary. However, post-war studies indicate that the war in Japan could have ended as soon or sooner without the bombings—when, for instance, Russia entered the war.
  • The intentions of Japan: It’s contested as to whether Japan would have surrendered unconditionally with or without the bombings.
  • US advance warning to civilians: There are claims that "Special leaflets were…dropped on Japanese cities three days before a bombing raid to warn civilians to evacuate." But the evidence seems to point against there ever having been any advance warning.
  • The objectives served by the bombings: It seems that the bombings could have served curiosity as to the destructive powers of atomic weapons and not necessarily a military objective.
Consider also how the Japanese came to realize what was happening with the bombings:
The Tokyo control operator of the Broadcasting Corporation of Japan noticed that the Hiroshima station had gone off the air. He tried to re-establish his program by using another telephone line, but it too had failed. About 20 minutes later the Tokyo railroad telegraph center realized that the main line telegraph had stopped working just north of Hiroshima. From some small railway stops within 16 kilometers (10 mi) of the city came unofficial and confused reports of a terrible explosion in Hiroshima. All these reports were transmitted to the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff.

Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at headquarters; they knew that no large enemy raid had occurred and that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at headquarters that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor.

The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly 100 miles (160 km) from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning. Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left. They landed south of the city, and the staff officer, after reporting to Tokyo, immediately began to organize relief measures.

By August 8, 1945, newspapers in the U.S. were reporting that broadcasts from Radio Tokyo had described the destruction observed in Hiroshima. "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death," Japanese radio announcers said in a broadcast received by Allied sources.
These issues collectively teach us two important lessons: people don’t always know exactly what it is they have witnessed, especially without context; and post-event contextualization and interpretation can shape public memory and opinion of real events in significant ways. To confirm these points further, and perhaps finally, consider this testimony of an eyewitness to Hiroshima:
The magnitude of the disaster that befell Hiroshima on August 6th was only slowly pieced together in my mind. I lived through the catastrophe and saw it only in flashes, which only gradually were merged to give me a total picture.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

As much as six kilometers from the center of the explosion, all houses were damaged and many collapsed and caught fire. Even fifteen kilometers away, windows were broken. It was rumored that the enemy fliers had spread an explosive and incendiary material over the city and then had created the explosion and ignition. A few maintained that they saw the planes drop a parachute which had carried something that exploded at a height of 1,000 meters. The newspapers called the bomb an "atomic bomb" and noted that the force of the blast had resulted from the explosion of uranium atoms, and that gamma rays had been sent out as a result of this, but no one knew anything for certain concerning the nature of the bomb.
Applied to Sinai, these lessons remind us that we don’t know what, if anything, happened at Sinai and how it was experienced. The lessons also tell us that the Torah’s report provides a single source that does not always seem to say what the rabbis insist it does. Reference, for example, my reading of the relevant passages in Exodus 19 and 20, “where the direct interaction of God occurs unambiguously only with Moses, and perhaps also with Aaron.”
When we look at the biblical passage above, and we must remember that we read it in translation, we see that the nature of the interaction between God and Israel is hardly so remarkable as Kuzari might otherwise lead us to believe. With Moses and then Aaron seemingly as the sole exceptions, all Israel keeps its distance from Sinai and remains “far off.” The people see smoke and feel shaking, as if they are before a volcano. What did Israel hear? Certainly, they heard the shofar. What of God did they hear? Only sound.…While Jewish tradition has maintained that God spoke the first two commandments directly to Israel (but see Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II.33), this seems to be an interpretation that is not explicit in the text itself.
Applied to Kuzari, the atomic bombings example offers lessons in the malleability of both beliefs and evidence. If I’m a very nationalistic American, I will dismiss or diminish information that potentially upsets my view. I’ll rather accept the lower casualty figure and believe that the two locations served a mostly military purpose. If I am suspicious of the government, I will accept different evidence and evaluate it differently. I don’t know whether ordinary people in Japan and around the world were unprepared to believe that the two bombings had happened unless evidence was presented to them. I suspect that many people had their opinions shaped and solidified by media, government spokespeople, and influential personal contacts—far away from direct evidence. I also know that people do funny things with evidence. Some people think the Zapruder film shows a conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Some people think the lunar photos show evidence that the US Moon missions were hoaxes.

In light of the above points, we can see how inadequately Kuzari handles concepts such as “event,” “evidence,” and “belief.” None of these concepts is put in the context of cultural knowledge and social power relations. None of these concepts is used in a way that considers the nuances in personal/collective experience, the ties between evidence and presupposition, and the use of beliefs as instruments of community coherence and conformity. A true NET belief such as the atomic bombings shows that people will believe according to their agenda and according to their favorite thought leaders.

Finally, I want to return to the quotation I gave earlier of Gottlieb’s case against myth formation. Gottlieb has continued to maintain the mistaken claim that “we have positive evidence that KP is true.” He has pointed to the quotation I gave as containing the positive evidence. As I went through in an earlier post to dispute his claims to empirical backing for Kuzari, I want to go through the quotation now to show that he is not providing positive evidence:
  1. “If myth formation applies to a belief, then of course the belief is not true.” This is a conditional statement and probably too much a generalization, since many myths are great exaggerations of the truth (i.e., Euhemerism). No positive evidence is contained in this sentence.
  2. “Myth formation shows how false beliefs arise.” This is an assertion, and no positive evidence is contained in the sentence.
  3. “Now THERE ARE NO KNOWN FALSE NET BELIEFS.” This is an assertion; moreover it is an assertion of having no positive evidence. The assertion itself and alone contains no positive evidence.
  4. “If myth formation worked in the NET category there should be many NET beliefs that are known false, but there are none.” This is a conditional statement that repeats the lack of positive evidence. It is an argumentative statement, but no positive evidence is here that supports why “there should be many NET events that are known false.”
  5. “So the evidence that we have of myth formation working is limited to cases that are not NET.” This statement asserts the existence of evidence for myth formation. While this statement makes an unspecified appeal to positive evidence, it actually contains none of its own.
  6. “The evidence we have is against myth formation applying to NET beliefs since if it did there should be many known false NET beliefs.” This is an assertion that makes an appeal to unspecified evidence of myth formation, as in #5, above. However, this statement claims that the evidence goes against the application of myth formation to NET beliefs. We get no mention here of either the specific evidence being referred to or the reasons the evidence would lead us away from a conclusion that myth formation applies to NET beliefs. So, this statement by itself contains no positive evidence.
Based on these six sentences, I do not think it is true to say that “we have positive evidence that KP is true.” So far, there is no positive evidence. Plus, the evidence of at least one real NET shows that Kuzari is too vague and speculative to tell us much about Sinai or belief in Sinai. In the case of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the formation of beliefs started with confused reports of an event witnessed by very many. Information was then gathered and consensus opinions began to be formed. Later, the event was put into historical context and its significance contested.

With Sinai, we have one report given from one perspective. We don't know the report of the people closest to the mountain. We don't know the observations of witnesses in the very back. We cannot hear the voices of the women, the outsiders, and the opponents. We have no documents from the nations closest to Sinai telling us about something most unusual having happened. The strongest inference we can draw from Sinai is that something--a natural event or some other fantastic occurrence--may have happened out in the wilderness. We may even be able to justify saying something must have happened. We cannot, however, say with any confidence that Sinai happened. Kuzari changes nothing about this because even if the principle itself is 100 percent true, it doesn't tell us anything about what exactly happened at Sinai, how, to whom, over what time period, and at what stakes. It's a believer's reason to believe, a "nice to have." But it's not especially compelling to a neutral observer.

And that's why at this point it's best to leave the discussion because, with Sinai, the one thing we have not talked about is the one thing we should have been talking about all along: The actual evidence that we have for the actual people we think correspond to "Biblical Israel." Although this has been a fascinating discussion on logic, belief, and classification of events, we cannot get very far without a collection of real evidence and data. I have already shown that the pro-Kuzari side is not forthcoming when it comes to direct, positive evidence. We cannot derive a clear picture of Biblical Israel, Sinai, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on a principle. If we truly want to understand the events and these people, we need to study the writings and the physical data, and we need to remember not to get carried away by the existence or non-existence of evidence. The evidence often means what we want it to mean, and the non-evidence doesn't tell us much of anything.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Gods Become Ever Less Necessary and Likely

[A slayer of gods.]

We ought to acknowledge the significance of Stephen’s Hawking’s statements that the “creation” of our universe did not require “God.”
“The Grand Design," which the publishers call Hawking’s first major work in nearly a decade, challenges Isaac Newton’s theory that God must have been involved in creation because our solar system couldn’t have come out of chaos simply through nature.

But Hawking, who is renowned for his work on black holes, says it isn’t that simple.

In his best-selling 1988 book “A Brief History of Time," Hawking appeared to accept the possibility of a creator, saying the discovery of a complete theory would “be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God."

But “The Grand Design’’ seems to step away from that.

It says that physics can explain things without the need for a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit."

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing," the excerpt says.
Now, I have not yet read Hawking's new book, so I cannot say I have the full context of the statements as reported. Yet, we know that these statements come from a man who understands the physics of the early universe as well as anyone. These statements reflect a measured conclusion established by decades of interaction with the relevant physical data and theories. These statements emerge from an informed intellect.

Sean Carroll has a neat explanation of Hawking's point:

Hawking’s statements seem not to rule out God or to oppose the idea of God. However, he seems to say that physical “laws” are by themselves sufficient to explain the universe, and that this explanation is available for all to see and consider. If so, then anyone who now wishes to claim that God was necessary for the universe better have an equally good explanation rooted in empirical data.

Hawking’s “beliefs,” as some of the indignant religious say, may indeed be incorrect, misguided, or hasty. I am not claiming that Hawking is “right,” and this is not the important point. The important point is rather that now the arena of the debate is at the level of physics. Hawking claims to have a physical model of the universe’s birth. This model works fine without a creator. From now on, sufficient counter-responses must also have physical models.

Hawking has just upped the empirical ante of the debate.

UPDATE: Uber-apologist William Lane Craig has a reasonable response, particularly for one who has not yet read the book.


One issue I have with WLC's response is his philosophical jockeying around, for instance, with the terms "nothing" and "non-being" Of course, he can hardly do anything else besides establishing philosophical concepts that reside "outside" the physical/mathematical description that Hawking may be discussing. But notice that WLC's concessions just keep pushing God back farther: If Hawking's "nothing" is not philosophical "non-being," WLC says, then why couldn't God have created that "nothing"? OK, well why do we need to postulate that God created it?

But go back to what I said before: WLC wants to make this a philosophical debate, but my sense is that Hawking's not trying to engage the philosophy. Rather, my sense is that Hawking is laying out the physical case. If WLC and others want to come at the physics with philosophy, that's their prerogative. They will of course succeed in re-assuring their followers that God is not yet impossible. However, that is going to be God's future, permanent home: not impossible. A good many of us have no reason ever to be in that neighborhood.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Are Divine-Human Interactions Possible?

[I'm pulled into ever more minutia-discussions on Kuzari]

This is more fallout from the continuing email exchange I have been having with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb concerning my post on the Kuzari Principle. I have argued that Gottlieb needs to do a better job of establishing the possibility that divine-human interactions take place. Gottlieb disagrees.

Originally, I had asked him “Why do we think that it even makes sense to conceive of immortal, super-beings?” I asked this question because he began his syllogism explaining Kuzari on the premise, "Let E be a possible event...." The word "possible" is Gottlieb's, not mine. For the Sinai revelation to work as E, a possible event, the God of Exodus must exist and that God must be able to make himself perceptible to people.

Now, we can think of other conditions that must be possible before Sinai can be possible, but I want to stop with the two conditions I just stated. I had originally asked Gottlieb about the first condition, reasons for thinking God exists, but here I want to spend time considering the second condition, reasons for thinking that God and humans can have actual interactions with each other.

At first, Gottlieb avoided answering my question by misconstruing my request as a demand that he "prove" the possibility of such an event. But, no, I had asked that he establish the possibility, not prove it.

I suspect Gottlieb knows it is no simple matter to establish the possibility that divine beings communicate and interact with real humans. To illustrate, let’s claim that “It’s possible that divine being DB has shaken hands with Fred.” Compare this claim with four others:
(1) “It’s possible that human being HB has shaken hands with Fred.”
(2) “It’s possible that grizzly bear GB has shaken hands with Fred.”
(3) “It’s possible that the color green has shaken hands with Fred.”
(4) “It’s possible that imaginary character IC has shaken hands with Fred.”
Do we allow that all five claims are equally possible? Or do we balk and suggest that the degree of possibility will be influenced by (a) conditions such as historical time, geographical space, and available technology; (b) our prior knowledge and assumptions about the kinds of entities named as divine, human, grizzly bear, color, and imaginary; and (c) our understanding of the speaking intent of the claimants and the modality of the claims [e.g., persuasive or entertainment intent; factual or figurative mode]?

Using these three criteria, we can propose reasonable standards of impossibility:
Claim (1) will be impossible if HB and Fred don’t live at the same time and never come across one another.
Claim (2) will be impossible for the same reason as claim (1).
Claim (3) will be impossible if the claim is intended as a straightforward, factual statement.
Claim (4) will be impossible if the claim is intended as a straightforward, factual statement and Fred refers to a real human being.
But what makes the divine-human interaction claim impossible? Well, for one thing we cannot use the question of the divinities’ existence or non-existence because the claim already presupposes existence and because we want to separate the category “divinity” from the category of “imaginary character IC.” Nothing seems to make the claim impossible.

Before the religious among us rejoice too much, I remind everyone that we can achieve an equally possible and also-unfalsifiable result by using the name of any divinity or mythical being: divine-human interaction, God-human interaction, mermaid-human interaction, Ra-human interaction, Odin-human interaction, centaur-human interaction, and so on. These types of interaction are all possible and all unfalsifiable.

I had asked Gottlieb “Why do we think that it even makes sense to conceive of immortal, super-beings?” I could now just as well ask “Why do we think that it makes sense to conceive of mermaids and centaurs?” At one time, good reasons may have included explanation, fun, or for sake of tradition. Today, however, the questions are whether these reasons still hold and whether other conceptions offer better reasons.

The larger point is that  
We do not automatically grant the existence of gods--we do not and we should not. Anyone who wants to place "God" in the context of reality will have to address the questions of why posit a god at all and why posit this or that version of a god.

To put the point another way: It is becoming ever less necessary to take seriously the supernatural substance of religions.