Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Dragon in My Garage

Whether your name is Meredith or not, be forewarned: this post contains deeply heretical ideas, along with some gross stuff about my love life.

DH has known about my spiritual struggle since we were in high school. This was, in part, because we were both socially inept. I asked him to senior prom (not because I was particularly interested in him, mind you, but because I knew he'd be available), and on the way, in the limosine, I started rambling on about God.

I was in the midst of a massive crisis of faith. All my life, I'd been deeply religious, which is to say that I did my utmost to behave in accordance with halakha as I understood it and to believe the religious dogma that I was taught. This had become increasingly difficult, however, and lately, even the most basic tenets of religion had begun to seem irrational.

Everyone else seemed to think that I was a model Jew (notwithstanding my strange decision to go to prom), and I didn't know how my date would respond to this sudden admission of agnosticism. To my surprise, it didn't seem to affect him at all. He responded matter-of-factly that of course there was no way to prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being. Then, with a grin, he concluded:

"God is a postulate."

Strangely enough, that was the moment when I realized that this incredibly nerdy boy, who couldn't assemble an English sentence without including a world like "postulate," was someone I'd actually like to befriend.

Several years later, when we became romantically involved (in spite of a distance of approximately 400 miles), I began what became a lengthy e-mail exchange debating the God Postulate.

Some excerpts:

Love,
...
God is only a useful concept. . . if He interacts with the universe in some way. Can't one assert, then, according to a law that seems to hold true within the universe, that a system including a superfluous entity is less likely to accurately describe the way things work?

Dearest,
...
If you get the same results from one line of math that you would get from 7 pages of algebra, chances are, you want to use the one line, and all that it implies about the physics, as the basis of your theory. On the other hand, if there are some phenomena that can only be explained by the theory that would require 7 pages of algebra to do, you know that while the one line works in a limiting case, it can't be the entire truth.

Motek,
...
Quantum theory is valuable because there are cases that Newtonian physics can't explain. Find me an aspect of the universe that can't be explained except through theism.

Dearest Pathetically Devoted One,
...
I'm glad that you finally responded to my e-mail. I was starting to worry that I might have actually destroyed your faith, which would suck, because then we'd have to switch positions.


And so on.

One of the things that most attracted me to DH was his willingness to confront these issues. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem to interfere with his religious commitment. Still, I have to admit, I was also kind of hoping that he'd eventually formulate an argument that would make religion seem reasonable again. Perhaps that was too much to hope for from anyone.

I've found myself thinking about these issues a good deal lately, mainly as a result of the proliferation of blogs by Orthodox and formerly Orthodox sceptics. Of course, I've dragged DH back into the conversation. The outcome of our last debate (if you can call me whining while my husband tries to sleep a "debate") is encapsulated in this post on DH's blog. In response, some obviously intelligent and thoughtful people contributed these (forgive me) entirely pathetic arguments in favor of theism:

1. "Cognitive closure:" The "wiring" of the human brain prevents us from grasping God's function in the universe.* Possible? Certainly. It is also possible that we are "wired" to think that the world around us is real, when it is actually a "matrix" designed by giant robots who are farming us for energy. In fact, a movie based on that premise was wildly popular. Still, I don't see people restructuring their lives on the basis of The Matrix. That's because, not only is there no reason to think that it's true, but it undermines everything we're able to deduce based on our senses and our capacity for logical reasoning.

If this doesn't trouble you, think about your daily life. Pretty much everything you do is based on the assumption that your senses and capacity for basic reasoning will not fail you. Everything. . . except religion.

2. God could "shift some quantums one way, and balance it out by shifting others the other way."** Also possible. But realize that this is the logical eqivalent of the argument that God fabricated the fossil record in order to fool us. Tell me again why I should believe in a God who's done everything possible to ensure that I can't detect his existence?

Sorry to be so shrill, but I know that there are many intelligent religious people in the world. Can't anyone do better than this?

* From respondingtojblogs
**From Godol Hador

44 comments:

Shaya said...

It's not that the our brains are explicitly wired not to understand God's purpose, but that by definition we can't.

Read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

here's a link to a summary (first link I got off of google, too tired to look through it first)

http://www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol3/v3doc1.html

Dovid said...

PLEASE put everything else aside and start learning the Tanya!!!! It can't wait :)

elf said...

Agnoxodox: Kant makes my brain hurt. But, to the point: I fully accept the possibility of a trancendental Being or dimension, the existence and/ or nature of which we human beings are not capable of fully grasping. This may apply, for example, to ultimate cause of the genesis of matter in the universe, which we do not yet, and may not ever, understand. The problem, from where I sit, is that we do seem capable of understanding most processes that occur within the universe. Adding some incomprehensable element of causation to a process that we already understand (say, the hydrologic cycle) seems to me to be about as reasonable as positing a "matrix" designed by giant robots.

Dovid: Okay, you win :-) I'm taking a copy of Tanya out of the library today. We'll see how much reading I get done over Shabbat. (Warning: I take very long naps.)

shanna said...

How about: 3. Because otherwise we'd all be very, very lonely, and wouldn't be able to pretend that our deceased loved ones can still appreciate us in some way?

Yeah, that's kinda lame.

But then again, I don't rely on "belief in God" as a basis for my adherence to a halachic structure. Of course, I don't think you do, either.

fleurdelis28 said...

Pretty much everything you do is based on the assumption that your senses and capacity for basic reasoning will not fail you. Everything. . . except religion.

I don't know; most people do some things for reasons that are unproved and possibly unprovable. I mean, faith doesn't factor into most people's decisions to turn the knob and expect the door to open, but most value systems have some basis in it. (For example, I know exactly one person who actually decided his vote for the last election by weighing out the positions of the candidates and how highly he valued each issue.) My high school Civil Liberties class, taught by a man who placed had himself at personal risk of being thrown through plate glass windows in defense of restaurant desegregation (he said he'd never been so relieved to be arrested), opened with a discussion of various proofs and disproofs of the existence of God, and their ultimate inconclusiveness. The punch line was that the system of civil liberties is like that too -- we can make all sorts of arguments for why free speech is important, but in the end we just have faith that it's something worth defending. Of course, no one argues that the importance of the system of civil liberties can't be proved because our brains aren't wired to perceive it -- but then nothing in the Bible says that about religion either, to my knowledge (it says we can't expect to always understand why God does what He does, but that's a bit different).

Of course, that still leaves the question of "What is an inherently imperceptible deity good for"?

Conversely, I do know a lot of people -- generally Christian -- who believe they can feel God's presence directly in their lives (I think in more of a spiritual sense than a cause-and-effect sense, though there are certainly people out there in the latter category too). Consequently, they tend not to care so much about whether the Bible stands up to historical vetting, because if the end result is true, then clearly the set-up means whatever it needs to, literal or figurative or mistransmitted or whatever.

Rachel said...

It's arguable that belief in God isn't rational, so God's existence can't be proven using rational means. Your DH suggested that mysticism might be a more useful toolset here than rationality, and I suspect he may be right -- even though I quake a little bit at saying so, given how badly the term "mysticism" has been co-opted by the nutjobs at the Kabbalah Centre and their ilk!

You said, above, that you were hoping someone could formulate an argument that would make religion reasonable again. *g* So are you looking for a way to justify religious practice, or for an intelligible defense of the existence of God? Because I'm not convinced that the two are the same, at all; I can tell you why I choose to be religious (for the particular value of "religious" as I define it in my own life), and I can tell you about my belief in God, but they're not the same answer...

Shabbat shalom!

Tim said...

Elf, you wrote: "The problem, from where I sit, is that we do seem capable of understanding most processes that occur within the universe." But I don't think we can understand the important processes. I don't understand why my wife loves me - it's plain daft, I don't even understand why I love her - it's plain marvelous. Nor do I understand why a hillside on a misty morning is beautiful... In fact I lack understanding of all but the simplest and most mechanical things....

elf's DH said...

tim -- DW and I both focused on God's ability to change physical world when we, for example, pray for rain. True -- we don't understand thought... yet. Neither of us addressed the theory of a God who acts through society (which is kind of a cop-out in a way, and may lead somewhere close to where rachel is coming from).

elf said...

Wow, what a lot of different comments!

Shanna: I agree that there are compelling reasons to lead a religious life regardless of belief in God. Then again, given the many demands of halakha, I'm not sure that an observant Jewish lifestyle can be adequately justified without a presumption of the possibility of God's existence. There's certainly more to be said about this, but I think I'll leave off the subject for now.

fleurdelis28: I think that you and I are not saying quite the same thing. It is true that not all of our decisions are based on experience or logic, but we do generally try not to make decisions that contradict experience and logic. To use your first example, when I turn a doorknob, I expect the door to open, based on my understanding of the physics of doorknobs as well as my past experience. I do not make plans to meet my friends in Australia based on the premise that the next time I turn the doorknob, the door will turn into a flying carpet and transport me halfway around the world.

To put it another way, I have no problem with the idea that belief in God is non-rational. I do have a problem with belief in God being irrational (in contradiction to reason). What I would like to hear (but have pretty much despaired of hearing) is a convincing argument that theism and atheism are more or less equally reasonable.

Rachel: I think I've addressed most of your points in responses to shanna and fleurdelis28. However, I would be interested in hearing more about your religious journey, when you have a chance to write about it. Shabbat shalom to you, too!

Tim: On one level, I think that what you're describing is a sense of wonder, which is not necessarily the same as a lack of understanding. I can marvel at a syphony without denying that it is made up of perfectly unremarkable notes. Similarly, my love for my husband is in no way diminished when I think of it as nature's ploy to get us to reproduce.

At the same time, most people feel that there is something more to the human experience than its mechanical components. Religion is one way (though certainly not the only way) to respond to this feeling. Of course, a religion that identified God strictly with the "non-mechanical" aspects of existence would be very different from traditional Judaism (and, to a lesser degree, Christianity). But people seem to pull it off.

Well, now, it's almost time to pay my respects to the Almighty Postulate. Then dinner, and finally, if I'm not too tired, some Tanya.

elf said...

sypony = symphony. And, I seem to have missed DH. Please explain your parenthetical after Shabbat!

elf's DH said...

Description of parenthetical posted here

Erica said...

To put it another way, I have no problem with the idea that belief in God is non-rational. I do have a problem with belief in God being irrational (in contradiction to reason). What I would like to hear (but have pretty much despaired of hearing) is a convincing argument that theism and atheism are more or less equally reasonable.

I would be surprised if theism and atheism were equally reasonable. My probably inaccurate sense is that atheism is a concept related to the modern ideas of reason and rationality, while theism is a concept related to pre-modern ideas. Maybe the problem you run into is that you can't construct or justify a belief in a pre-modern idea (God) using modern tools (the scientific method, objectivity, rationality).

erica said...

I'm not sure I said that in a way that expressed what I meant.

Here's what I notice in your language. You say that you don't object to belief in God as non-rational; but you go on to say you want to see a convincing argument that theism is reasonable. Isn't it a contradiction in terms to allow belief in God to be non-rational while asking that it be reasonable? How can something be reasonable and non-rational at the same time? Is there a concrete example of such a thing (outside of abstruse mathematics that neither of us truly understand anyway)?

This is where I get the contention that you are using modern tools to justify a premodern idea: because you are asking that belief in God be reasonable, even if it is irrational, when reason is just as much a concept of modern times as rationality.

Hopefully all these thoughts will still make sense in the morning. Good night.

elf's DH said...

Elf is distinguishing between three relationships of an idea to rationality:
rational - supported by logic, empiricism, etc.
not rational - unsupported by anything.
irrational - contradicted by logic, empiricism, etc.

In this terminology, something can be "not rational" and still be "reasonable," as long as it doesn't cross the line to the "irrational."

erica said...

Do you have a concrete example of how to apply those relationships to specific concepts?

erica said...

Do you have a concrete example of how to apply those relationships to specific concepts?

fleurdelis28 said...

I do not make plans to meet my friends in Australia based on the premise that the next time I turn the doorknob, the door will turn into a flying carpet and transport me halfway around the world.

First of all, that's just an awesome image.

But secondly -- do you actually do anything religiously for that sort of literalistic reason anyway? I suspect that at least in a lot of people's cases, a better analogy would be the belief that opening doors is a positive thing that benefits the world or the individual somehow somewhere along the line in some sort of abstract way. You can have strong suspicions that that makes no sense, but it's pretty hard to pin down and disprove.

Thirdly, there should definitely be some sort of geek religion devoted to the worship/contemplation of the Almighty Postulate. Maybe we need to found one.

elf's DH said...

erica -- (thanks to DW and a random comment by fleurdelis28's law professor for help in formulating this one):
Rational - In places where civil rights are respected, people are more likely to criticise the government.
Not rational - Civil rights laws are a benefit to society.
Irrational - Jews should be denied civil rights because they are genetically inferior.

max m. alist said...

You ended your rant against believers by asking, "Can't anyone do better than this?" But after reading your argument as to why you believe atheism to be more plausible than theism, I'm left asking, "Can't you do better than this?" Because G-d decided to create a world in which His presence is hidden and didn't ask your permission nor give you a personal, detailed explanation, that makes it not plausible that He did so?

Furthermore, if you really were interested in learning about possible reasons for G-d's hidden existence, you would read with an objective mind the 1000s of pages written over the last 2000 years in Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature about the concept known as tzimtzum.

Forgive my sharp tone; it's just that I would expect more from someone with your intelligence and level of scholarship.

elf said...

Max: Perhaps scholarship is the problem.

On a purely philosophical plane, if we acknowledge the possibility that our senses and logical faculties are entirely faulty, all things are equally probable. In fact, perhaps we should not speak of degrees of probability at all, since the very concept is a product of human logic.

In the scholarly world, however (and, as I've argued, in most of our daily lives as well), we take it as a given that empirical observation and logical reasoning can lead to valid conclusions.

To take this from a slightly different angle: consider the fact that, on the aforementioned "purely philosophical plane," the existence of an active deity is no more likely than the existence of an invisible dragon in someone's garage. Yet, it does not occur to you or me to take the idea of such a dragon seriously, while at the same time, we engage in earnest discussion of God. Why do you think that is? (Serious question.)

aaron said...

Elf,

Empirical observation with blinders on does not necessarily lead to valid conclusions.

Of course Hashem counts on this. He wants to give us the gift of free will, which would be difficult if He were undeniably always in our faces. But that doesn't mean He's not there... just that He is the Master of subtlety. If you choose not to see Him, that's your limitation, not his.

elf said...

Aaron: DH and I aren't sure we understand your analogy. Who's responsible for the blinders, me or God?

aaron said...

The blinders are your predisposition to interpret events one way or the other. I didn't think it was an analogy, but I guess you could read it that way. If you insist on an analogy, let's say you really did have a dragon in your garage, and it was visible plain as day, but I don't believe in dragons. I walk into your garage and there is a dragon staring me in the face, but I can't see it. Cognitive dissonance. Or maybe I walk into your garage with my eyes shut tight and say "Nope, no dragon here!"

Now I'm not saying that G-d's existence is incontrovertably provable, even though it's plain as day to me. But I am saying it's outside the scope of logic. logical arguments must start from basic principles, and in religious debates those principles are tainted by our predisposition toward one conclusion or the other.

elf's DH said...

aaron --
Now I'm not saying that G-d's existence is incontrovertably provable, even though it's plain as day to me

This statement requires explanation. The remainder of your comment is not concrete enough for anyone to be able to respond.

max m. alist said...

Dear Elf,

I think the reason why we consider the possibility of G-d more than that of an invisible dragon in your garage is because we have absolutely no cause for believing the latter, whereas we do have some cause for believing the former. Sir Isaac Newton wrote in Principia that the natural world must "proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being," and that "the Supreme God exists necessarily, and by the same necessity he exists always and everywhere." (Italics are mine.) That is, his knowledge of the universe gave him cause to believe in G-d, but not to believe that an invisible dragon is in your garage.

I realize that much has been discovered about the laws of nature since Newton's time. However, I'm sure you'd agree that these discoveries are no where near enough to make Newton's cause for belief--or at least cause for acknowledgment of the possibility--totally obsolete.

erica said...

to elfs_dh: Ah, that works. I do not automatically have anything to add to my previous statements on the strength of the examples, though possibly something will occur to me over the next week and a half.

elf's DH said...

max -- scientists are not like gedolei Torah in some communities. We don't accept philosophy on the words of a scientist. In case you're interested, I once read (but can't find the source, so take it with a grain of salt), that Newton wrote more total words wearing the hat of a theologian than as a mathematician or a physicist. Newton's universe required a "prime mover" because Newton's Laws imply that the universe is eternal in both directions (past and future). In our current understanding, this is not the case.

elf's DH said...

correction: Newton's universe required a "prime mover" for someone who wanted to believe in a creation event. Physically, it was perfectly fine for the universe to be eternal.

aaron said...

elf's DH: On your blog today you wrote... "The problem here is that one cannot be expected to have a reasonable debate on an issue when the conclusion is predetermined." And that is exactly what I was trying to say here. Now do you understand me?

elf's DH said...

I am open to hearing (more accurately, reading) your ideas. They are clearly not considered banned or heretical. This set of posts here and on my blog are not a trap set for believers. The conclusion is not predetermined.

I expressed the idea that a universe with a God and a universe without a God are equally reasonable through the idea that God's existence is a postulate. The problem is that if our postulate conflicts with something else that's known and backed by evidence, either the postulate is wrong or the evidence is wrong. As far as I understand your point (please correct me if I'm wrong), you are saying that God operates in a totally unseen way. That's fine, except that, on some level, in order for God to have an effect on the universe, He has to change something physical. A totally abstract God is not the personal God that Jews pray to. So, God must have some way to both change the universe and be imperceptible, or else, He's an experimentally testable hypothesis.

As I said in a response to you on my own blog, if feeling God's presence is enough for you, then go with it! This is not a challenge to your beliefs!

Mis-nagid said...

Option #2 (GH's) reminds me of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

"For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage."

Maybe GH should buy the shirt. :-)

aaron said...

elfsdh: (out of order)

This is not a challenge to your beliefs

I didn't take it as such.

As far as I understand your point (please correct me if I'm wrong), you are saying that God operates in a totally unseen way.

No, that's not quite what I'm saying. I'm saying He currently chooses to operate in a way which is perfectly visible in the sense of affecting the physical world, BUT usually indistinguishable from nature or coincidence.

Say Jane prays for a week that she should win the lottery, and then she wins the lottery. Did G-d do that because of her prayers? You can't prove that He did, and you can't prove that He didn't. But if He did, that certainly amounts to a physical change in the universe. The example is kind of concocted but there are millions of things like that in our everyday lives.

This set of posts here and on my blog are not a trap set for believers. The conclusion is not predetermined.

The conclusion of this discussion is not predetermined-- that's not what I meant. But the conclusion drawn by Jane when she wins the lottery -- or even if she doesn't-- is pretty much predetermined. We each evaluate the available "evidence" for the existence of G-d in the context of our predisposition to accept Him or not.

max m. alist said...

DH--in your haste to downplay my comments (and show off your knowledge of modern-day physics theory), you missed my point. Not only did I not say we should believe in G-d because Newton did, indeed I noted that much has been discovered about the universe since his time. All I was doing was trying to explain what would cause some people to believe in G-d when they don't believe that an invisible dragon is in your garage.

elf's DH said...

max -- point taken.

max & aaron -- But, I still think that what caused Newton to make those statements was nothing more than that he wanted it to be true. It also seems to be what drives your belief as well. I still have the three basic philosophical problems with the "indistinguishable from nature" argument. The first (and *weaker* one) is Ockham's razor which states that the simplest explanation should be accepted over the more complex, when both are equally capable of coming to the same conclusion. The second, stronger one, is that I'm having trouble understanding how that kind of indistinguishability can happen, because it contradicts the meanings of "randomness" and "probabilities" (I tried to get at that in one of my posts). I used to like that explanation, by the way. I am just uncomfortable with it now. I can blog a more concrete example, but, it's late now, so it would have to be some other time.

The third issue is that if God doesn't do any better than coincidence, then why not just rely on coincidence? If God does do better than coincidence, then the effect should be measurable. What effect to look for is a question, but, on some abstract level, I still don't quite get how this argument works.

aaron said...

elf's DH: I agree that this application of Occam's Razor is a weak argument. To me the thought of a Creator is much easier to accept than the notion that things just kind of happened to work out this way. (Have you read Rabbi Kelemen's book by the way? He discusses probablility in the first chapter, I think... it's been about ten years since I read it.)

I'm not really following your second argument, which may have something to do with why the third makes no sense to me. Saying that individual things which happen cannot be proven based solely on logic to have been done by an act of G-d is not the same as saying there are no acts of G-d. It's not that G-d doesn't do better than coincidence (e.g. the fact that the Jews still exist as a nation after thousands of years while other nations have come and gone), it's just that you can't prove that to someone who doesn't want to believe.

I'm also not sure what you're getting at by "why not just rely on coincidence." For some reason your demand for an empirical test reminds me of this. Yet here too, it's all in how you interpret the result. Once you accept that logical arguments are not going to change a person's conviction about whether G-d exists and/or cares what we do, you also accept that people who believe in G-d will rely on Him and serve Him while those who don't, won't. The ones who aren't sure what they want to believe get to think about game theory.

elf's DH said...

To me the thought of a Creator is much easier to accept than the notion that things just kind of happened to work out this way

But in no way self-evident given the evidence.

For some reason your demand for an empirical test reminds me of this.

I'm not *demanding* empirical evidence, I'm saying that your explanation implies a testable hypothesis.

The ones who aren't sure what they want to believe get to think about game theory.

This is a good line.

Anonymous said...

What a lot of kupfdrei by ostensibly intelligent people.

Theology is mainly the obsession of people who profess a belief ihe oxymoronic concept of trinitarian monotheism. Historically Jews rarely evidenced much interest in the nature of "God".

What's next? Jews arguing about grace and predestination? Gimme a break. Keep you ancestral traditions, be charitable, do rightly by your fellow man and leave headscratching over the nature of god to the Christians.
Dad.

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