Sunday, June 29, 2014

Strange But True: Atheist/Materialists are Anti-Science

Important Introductory Note for the Reader: The purpose of this article is not to present a case for Intelligent Design nor to argue that the Origin of Life enigma is definitive evidence for the existence of a Creator of life. The purpose is to document that most atheist/materialists have a definitively anti-scientific attitude when confronted with the challenge of explaining how life could have emerged from non-life through an unguided naturalistic process.

Point #1: It is an indisputable fact that scientists haven’t the slightest idea how the yawning chasm between non-life and life could have been crossed through an unguided process:

“The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science…Origin of Life research has evolved into a lively, interdisciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the “dirty” rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin of life field is a failure – we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is due not to a lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life…these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.” - The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution, Dr. Eugene Koonin (Upper Saddle River, NJ, FT Press, 2011, pg. 391)

Origin of Life expert Dr. Paul Davies from Arizona State University put it this way in a 2010 lecture on the subject: “How? [did life begin] We haven’t a clue.”

Point #2: Not only is the Origin of Life field a failure but in the last 70 years it has actually moved backwards by many orders of magnitude. Nobel Prize winning chemist, Dr. Ernst Chain, wrote the following in 1945:

“I have said for years that speculations about the origin of life lead to no useful purpose as even the simplest living system is far too complex to be understood in terms of the extremely primitive chemistry scientists have used in their attempts to explain the unexplainable that happened billions of years ago.” Dr. Ernst Chain, Nobel Prize – Medicine, 1945 (The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond, (R.W. Clark, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London (1985), pg. 148)

Fast forward to 2012: The Origin of Life Gordon Research Conference: “The origin of life on Earth, and its possible existence elsewhere in the universe, offer some of science’s greatest unsolved problems” (from the website: Gordon Research Conferences – Origin of Life Conference, January 2012, Galveston, Texas)

….and in 2013: The Origin of Life Gordon Research Conference: “Originating Life in the Lab, 7:30-9:30 pm - Ok. Maybe we cannot solve the historical question: How did life actually arise on Earth. Can we originate some of our own life by “intelligent design?”… (Description of a session to be held at the Gordon Research Conferences – Origins of Life Conference, January 2014, Galveston, Texas)

In 1945 scientists were clueless about the Origin of Life and in 2014 they remain clueless. However, over the past 70 years with the incredible breakthroughs and advances in microbiology and genetics, their understanding of the magnitude of the problem that needs to be solved has grown exponentially. The following were written in 1988 and 1989 respectively:

 “More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.”Dr. Klaus Dose

“In one sense the origin of life remains what it was in the time of Darwin – one of the great unsolved riddles of science. Yet we have made progress…many of the early na├»ve assumptions have fallen or have fallen aside…while we do not have a solution, we now have an inkling of the magnitude of the problem.” (Carl Woese, Microbiologist and Gunter Wachtershauser, Chemist - “Origin of Life” in Paleobiology: A Synthesis, Edited by Briggs and Crowther, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1989)

…and in 2010: Dr. Milton Wainwright: “So much has been written about the Origin of Life that it might seem that little else needs to be said. Despite the lack of conclusive or convincing evidence it is generally accepted that life originated on Earth from simple chemicals…Are we getting any closer to an understanding of the origin of life?...The reality is that, despite the egos of some, the existence of life remains a mystery. It is not merely that biology is scratching the surface of this enigma; the reality is that we have yet to see the surface!”

Point #3: In light of all of the above, any rational truth-seeking individual must at least acknowledge that the notion of a Creator of life is a reasonable possibility that warrants serious discussion. 

Nobel Prize winning biochemist, Dr. Christian DeDuve wrote the following in 2009:
“[We have no naturalistic explanation for] the origin of life, which is unknown so far. It thus remains permissible…that life was flipped into being by a Creator…As long as the origin of life can’t be explained in natural terms, the hypothesis of an instant divine creation of life cannot objectively be ruled out.”(The Genetics of Original Sin, DeDuve)

Nobel Prize winning biologist Dr. Werner Arber: “Although a biologist, I must confess I do not understand how life came about…I consider that life only starts at the level of a functional cell. The most primitive cells may require at least several hundred different specific biological macro-molecules. How such already quite complex structures may have come together remains a mystery to me. The possibility of the existence of a Creator, or God, represents to me a satisfactory solution to this problem.” (From Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens – Part 2, Chapter 2)

In other words, any objective-minded person, to borrow Dr. DeDuve’s phrase, must consider the possibility of a divine creation of life. Yet other than a few notable exceptions, non-believers, in a decidedly anti-scientific manner, reject the possibility of, and consideration of, the existence of a Creator:

Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize winning Biologist: “There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility…a supernatural creative act of God; I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution.” (Scientific American, 1954)

Dr. Harold Urey (mentor of Dr. Stanley Miller), Nobel Prize winning chemist: “All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.”  (Christian Science Monitor, 1/4/62)

Dr. George Whitesides, Chemist, Harvard University: “Most chemists believe as I do, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.” (from his speech upon the receiving the Priestley Medal for Chemistry, 2007)

Dr. Alexandre Meinesz: “In sum, all of these vestiges of very ancient life provide no precise clues to the place, time, and mechanism of the genesis of the first living organisms. Therefore the currently popular idea that life probably arose in warm, subsurface waters along a mid-ocean ridge…is a hypothesis without any scientific basis…no transition process between inorganic matter and bacteria has been found in nature…it is a fact that at the beginning of the third millennia, we cannot yet describe and illustrate the processes and the stages in the genesis of bacteria. The exact time and place of the spontaneous generation of the first bacteria remain unknown…we must humbly recognize that…the birth of life on Earth is only an unsupported hypothesis; all research trying to confirm it is at an impasse. It is just an idea…that has been taught. This idea has become a dogma.” (How Life Began, Alexandre Meinesz, University of Chicago Press, 2008. p. 30-33)

Dr. Euan Nisbet: “Life is improbable, and it may be unique to this planet, but nevertheless it did begin, and it is thus our task to discover how the miracle happened.” (Professor of Geology, University of London)

Dr. Robert Hazen, Mineralogist: “How did life arise...? Barring divine intervention, life must have emerged by a natural process – one fully consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics…Scientists believe in a universe ordered by natural laws; they resort to the power of observations, experiments, and theoretical reasoning to discover those laws…Scientists surmise that life arose on the blasted, primitive Earth from the most basic of raw materials: air, water, rock. Life emerged nearly 4 billion years ago by natural processes completely in accord with the laws of chemistry and physics…” (Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, Robert Hazen) Surmise: “To think or infer without certain or strong evidence; conjecture, guess” (

Dr. Jerry Coyne, Evolutionary Biologist: “Nope, we don’t yet understand how life originated on Earth…I’m pretty confident that within, say, 50 years we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth,” (from his blog “Why Evolution is True”)

Dr. Iris Fry, (non-believing) Philosopher of Science, Tel-Aviv University: “This paper calls attention to a philosophical presupposition coined here “the continuity thesis”…this presupposition, a necessary condition for any scientific investigation of the origin of life problem has two components. First, it contends that there is no unbridgeable gap between inorganic matter and life. Second, it regards the emergence of life as a highly probable process… The various principles of continuity might indeed push forward the experimental investigation of the emergence of life; as such they do represent the heuristic [educational] advantage of the continuity thesis. However, the decision to adopt the continuity thesis is a philosophical one…and this decision does not depend on the success of a specific experimental program, nor can it be revoked on the basis of its failure.” – In other words, it is a non-falsifiable postulate accepted without any evidence for its truth.

…Dr. Fry continues: “In addition I identify the rivals of the [continuity] thesis within the scientific community – “the almost miracle camp.”…This camp [includes Nobel Laureates Jacque Monod and Francis Crick, famed biologist Ernst Mayer, and philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper] regards the emergence of life as involving highly improbable events…The basic philosophical assumption underlying the “almost miracle” notion becomes apparent, once we learn that for Crick, the emergence of life was “a happy accident.” (“Are the different hypotheses for the emergence of life as different as they seem?” – Dr. Iris Fry, Biology and Philosophy, October, 1995)

Dr. Jacque Monod, Nobel Prize winning biochemist on how life could have possibly come from non-life: “Our number came up in the Monte Carlo Game.”

Conclusion: What is glaringly absent when atheist/materialists discuss the Origin of Life is empirical or experimental scientific evidence. What they offer us is the following:
·        Philosophical presuppositions
·        Miraculous events
·        Happy accidents
·        Monte Carlo games
·        Highly improbable events that occurred at some unknown time billions of years ago
·        Lame non-scientific phrases like “I’m pretty confident”
·        Belief
·        Non-falsifiable axioms based on an arbitrary “decision”
·        Cluelessness
·        “I have no idea”
·        Surmise, conjecture, speculation
·        Foolish tautologies like “barring divine intervention life must have emerged through a                 natural process” – Please note, there are only two possibilities to begin with. Of course if you arbitrarily reject one, only one possibility remains. Try this on for size: barring natural processes life must have emerged through divine intervention.
·        Hypotheses without scientific basis
·        Articles of faith
·        Astoundingly irrational statements like: “I do not want to believe in God, therefore I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible”
·        And last but not least: “an idea that has become a dogma”

Call this what you will, but one thing is certain: It has nothing to do with Science.

The "Eye For An Eye" Fallacy

"An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."

- Mahatmas Gandhi

While Gandhi may have been a great political leader and an impressive and important historical figure his knowledge of Jewish thought, as judged by the quotation above, seems to have been limited.  It's hard to blame him as this mistaken notion is common coin in the world at large and I doubt that he had a lot of spare time for Talmudic discourse. What's unfortunate is how it misrepresents the Jewish tradition and sullies the Torah's brand of morality - one that in my opinion should be universally celebrated.

Though it sounds more like the name of a cartoon villain, Lex Talionis (the Law of Retribution) is the Latin name for the Jewish concept of an "eye for an eye."  Sadly, a great many false conclusions about Judaism and its morality have been built off of the general misunderstanding of this important principle.  It has also been used to attempt to demonstrate that "early" Judaism was essentially another religion entirely before those wily Talmudic rabbis and their fanciful "interpretations" changed everything.  With the help of the musings of the great Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo we hope to prove that the notion that an "eye for an eye" never did (and in fact could not possibly ever have) meant that we actually take someone's eye, tooth, etc, out as retribution.

There are two important notions to bear in mind for this examination.  The first is that the Torah comes with its own "decoder ring" - a discreet series of logical inferences that scholars use to interpret the material. These inferences are objective - meaning that the individual can't just gloss over the text and conclude "this is what it means to me."  There must be a precedent for the conclusions that are drawn and it must fit within the framework of the Torah's internal logic.  The second is that there is a great deal of subtlety and nuance in the original Hebrew (as there is in any source language).  These nuances frequently inform legal decisions and as such are indispensable tools of analysis that are unfortunately lost in any translation.

Here are four ways by which we can know with certainty that Lex Talionis is referring to a monetary compensation:

  1. There is an exegetical concept in Jewish law that says when one verse is juxtaposed next to another that the law in the preceding verse applies to the one following (or vice versa).  In this case we are first taught about damaging another's animal requires a monetary fine - so too, in the case of damaging another person, a fine must be paid.
  2. The section that deals with this topic (Leviticus 24) also commands that we have "one law."  Based on that, the Talmud (Bava Kamma) asks the obvious question of what should be done "if a blind man blinded another man or if a cripple crippled another man?"  Would the court be able to exact the exact same retribution?  Could toothless people roam around bashing other people's teeth out with impunity?  The only way to fulfill "one law" would be to apply a monetary compensation to the toothed and toothless person.
  3. Bible scholar Benno Jacob noted that "an eye for an eye" is stated in a context of injuries that are caused by accident.  Importantly, in the preceding verses, the Torah is discussing cases of deliberate assault but doesn't legislate an exact retribution.  Can it really be the case that when someone seriously damages another with intent we would let him off easy with a fine but if he did it by accident we would be more stringent and do to him as he did?
  4. In Hebrew, the literal meaning of the verse is "an eye instead of an eye" and not "for an eye."  This implies that something must be given in place of the lost eye which would not be achieved by putting out the eye of the perpetrator.  (See Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch on Exodus 21:27)

Why then does the text not just go ahead and state "he shall make financial restitution in place of the eye?"  The answer is that that's just not how the Torah works.  The text is teaching us a moral lesson about what has transpired and the right way to go about thinking about it.  In the words of Rabbi Judah Lowe - the Maharal of Prague:

"Had the Torah specified "financial compensation" I would have assumed that just as one who kills his friend's animal and pays damages is free from further punishment, one who injures another and pays damages has no further need to compensate.  In truth, however, even though he paid for the injury, he is still obligated to ask for forgiveness...the Torah thus states that were it possible, his hand should also be cut off to show remorse."  In other words he deserves to have his eye, tooth or hand put out (even though it will not be) and should feel that his debt remains unpaid even after he's made a restitution.  

What we see clearly therefore is that far from being the brutal "Bronze Age" justice that Lex Talionis is reputed to represent, it's a compassionate and measured response to an unfortunate occurrence.  We also see that a monetary compensation simply must have been the intent of the author from the very beginning as otherwise there's no logical way to read it.  There are very many examples along these lines - ones which square much more neatly with the traditional Rabbinic method of exegesis and that stand in sharp relief to the incomplete and speculative approach of contemporary Bible Critics.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Better Than Ezra

In another post one of our readers made the following assertion:

"One of the major problems with the Kuzari proof is that there are two bottlenecks in traditional Jewish history where the Torah was re-introduced, one during the reign of Yoshiyahu Hamelech (King Josiah) and one during the time of Ezra.

Both times, the Torah was "re-revealed". So the continuous narrative that the Kuzari proof depends on does not exist, according to Tanach itself.

Even if you assert that what was found in Yoshiyahu's time was just Devarim, and the people knew the rest of the Torah, that claim is harder to make in the time of Ezra, These were returnees to the land who had clearly been living without a Torah for some time, or the returnees who came back with Ezra. So the revelation story was new to them, yet they believed it, just assuming that the chain had been broken. According to your reasoning, they should have said "wait! my parents and grandparents didn't tell me that!" Instead, they just assumed that in the upheaval of exile, the tradition had been lost."

The return to Israel of some 42,000 Jews from the Babylonian Exile is regarded by Bible critics as a watershed moment in Jewish history when the Torah (since presumed forgotten in the 70 year exile) was reintroduced to the people.  Critics like James Kugel make quite a lot of hay with this assumption - in his case constructing an entire alternate universe of Judaism.

Taking a peek around the book of Ezra I found a few items that would seem to be a bee in the bonnet of our reader's hypothesis that the "tradition had been lost."

  1. In Ezra 3:4 it says the the returnees from Babylon kept the "Feast of Tabernacles" (Sukkot).  Sukkot is a complex holiday with a lot of different parts and a lot of mitzvot (commandments) that cannot be kept without extensive knowledge of Jewish law and tradition.  If it was lost they would be unable to keep it.
  2. In Ezra 3:6 the people make offerings on the "first day of the 7th month" (Rosh HaShana).  Thus they knew both about the holiday and the laws and traditions associated with making offerings.
  3. In 3:7 they begin to build the Second Temple in Jerusalem indicating that they knew about the historical significance of the city as well as the many complex laws of the construction of the Temple and its vessels.
  4. In 3:13 some of the older people (who remembered the First Temple) began to weep - noting that the Second Temple paled in comparison to the First and indicating to us that there were people there who were alive from before the point that the tradition was supposedly broken.

In short, the tradition, while it may have been compromised during the exile, was not lost and the notion that the Sinaitic Revelation was forgotten among the populace or somehow reintroduced by Ezra or others just doesn't hold water.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Scientific Foreknowledge of the Jewish Sages

There is something tantalizing in the notion that contrary to popular belief, ancient people may have been in possession of a far greater level of insight about the nature of reality than they have generally been given credit for. Though there is the danger for this exploration to rapidly veer off into the loony bin of UFO encounters, Atlantis theories and the like, there are some serious thinkers who have noted that some cultures seem to have been aware of aspects of the natural world that, all things being equal, they should not have been. The Israeli professor of engineering at Ben Gurion University, Haim Shore, is one of those people and he has recorded his findings in a fascinating work called “Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew.”
Though at no point does Professor Shore describe these data points as explicit proofs of anything, one is left wondering: if his examples are indeed true, what does it mean? How could human beings living hundreds or thousands of years ago have known about matters which they could not have verified through experimentation or that would have required knowledge of parts of the world that had not yet been discovered or phenomena that are fully invisible to the naked eye? One possibility is that they didn’t know anything about these matters and that it’s just wishful thinking or reverse engineering of facts that make it seem as though it were true. Another is that they speculated so often about so many matters that occasionally they just got lucky about a few random facts and supporters just cherry-pick the ones that work and have discarded the more embarrassing ones.
As it happens, in the cases described by professor Shore (and others), the Jewish People have been familiar with the quoted sources for an extremely long time – the Talmud, the Zohar and other ancient texts were well known and widely dispersed so it’s not as if the examples have been culled from some wholly esoteric source and then spun at some later date to sound like a more recent scientific discovery. The examples are also quite clear and specific – there is no convenient ambiguity that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. And while it is true that the sages discussed and believed much of the scientific wisdom of their day that is now known to be incorrect, (such as a belief in the spontaneous generation of lice or the advice that pregnant women should drink wine), they never claimed to have a lock on the totality of knowledge – scientific or otherwise. They only claimed that they were given the keys to certain aspects of life that in general would help them with their spiritual practice. It is interesting to note that in many examples they give which do appear to be correct they claim to know through tradition and not through any particular inquiry. If true, what would be logical to posit as the source of their knowledge? Here are three examples:
Number of Stars
The Naked eye is able to perceive about 4000 stars in the night sky. Though the ancients might have wondered if there were any others beyond our perception there is no logical reason to assume that the number that they would imagine would be in the quintillions. There is even less reason to imagine that they would have suggested a number that is close (on a galactic scale) to the number that cosmology currently posits. This is what the Talmud had to say about it almost 2000 years ago:
“I created 12 constellations in the firmament, and for each constellation I created 30 hosts (clusters of stars), and for each host I created 30 legions (30 legions of stars for each host), and for each legion I created 30 divisions, and for each division I created 30 battalions, and for each battalion I created 30 camps, and to each camp I have attached 365,000 tens of thousands of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake.” (Brachot 32B)
Doing the calculations we see that:
• each camp has 3,650,000,000 (1000 x 10,000)
• 30 camps x 30 battalions x 30 divisions x 30 legions x 30 hosts x 12 constellations = 291,600,000 camps
• 3,650,000,000 x 291,600,000 = 1,064,340,000,000,000,000.
It is interesting to note that in 1997 NASA concluded there were 10 to the power of 21. Other sources suggest both smaller and larger numbers. The Jewish sages said it was 10 to the power of 18. Whatever the actual number may be, what would have prompted them to speculate on such a massive scale?
Continental Drift
Genesis 1:19 says “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place and let the dry land appear. And it was so.” Again, around 2000 years ago the Zohar Chadash (12:1) explained that “one single continent came out of the water, and from it seven continents were formed.” (There is a dispute between academics and religious scholars on the issue of the Zohar’s age, but either way, the texts are, by any standard, pre-scientific revolution). There are manuscripts and references to the Zohar that go back as early as the 14th century, yet the first scientist to talk about continental drift was Alfred Lothar Wegener in his book “The Origin of Continents and Oceans” in 1915. By what means would these sages have acquired the notion a) of a single land mass that broke apart, and b) the correct number of continents before they were even discovered? Why would they even discuss it?
The Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy
250 years ago Anton Lavoisier, (the father of modern chemistry), proved that matter that appears to have been destroyed continues to exist in a different form. It was a striking discovery due especially to the non-intuitive nature of the reality – when you burn a piece of paper it really does appear to be gone. 2800 years ago, King Solomon wrote the following in the book of Ecclesiastes “I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it or taken away.” 1500 years later Rabbi Saadiah Gaon in his book of Beliefs and Opinions explained this verse to mean that “…a created object can never annihilate another object in any way. Even if it is burnt with fire, it can never be annihilated; because it is impossible to destroy something to the point that it becomes nothing; for only God [can do this], who himself created it from nothing.”
Other examples that strangely parallel with our modern, scientific understanding:
• The origin of the universe
• The exact length of the lunar cycle
• The existence of the outer layer of the sun
• Water in space
• Meteorites as a source of water on planet Earth
• The effects of sound waves on matter
• The weight of air
• How the conception of twins occurs
• The day when blood coagulation begins
Each one of these examples may be coincidental and there may be a variety of alternative methods of explaining them. But what if they are (as these sages claimed) the revealed wisdom of a transcendental power – one for whom this foreknowledge would be rather intuitive as it was the designer of the system in toto? Would that not be a simple and elegant solution to the question? At the very least, it’s intriguing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Academic Bible Critics Don't Have the Goods

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was considered one of the greatest Talmudic minds of his generation and the de facto leader of Orthodox Jewry in North America.  He was renowned for his compassionate and giving nature as much as his razor-sharp intellect and and such was consulted by Jews the world over for his rulings on the most complex and challenging issues.  Among other moral conundrums he researched (within the context of Jewish Law) and rendered opinions on were: artificial insemination, brain-death, separation of Siamese Twins, factory raised veal and many others.

Word of his skill in this arena spread beyond the confines of his Lower East Side Yeshiva and eventually reached the ears of NY Governor Hugh Carey - who reached out to him via snail mail in 1981.  The Governor (a Catholic and a lawyer) was embroiled in a public debate as to whether or not New York State should impose the death penalty and sought the Rabbi's council on this delicate and hotly debated question.  Rabbi Feinstein responded with a friendly, respectful and thorough overview of the Jewish take on the topic which can be read in its entirety in the excellent book Uncommon Sense by Rabbi D.B. Ganz - one that posits that ancient Jewish wisdom (The Talmud) contains solutions to many of today's political and social challenges.

While it seems remarkable to me that the non-Jewish leader of one of the largest states in the union would be consulting an old immigrant Rabbi in Lower Manhattan, what struck me as more noteworthy was that he didn't think to consult with a professor of Bible Studies at one of New York's many academic institutions.  Was there no scholar at NYU or Columbia who, based on their critical reading of classical Jewish scripture, could advise the good Governor on all that he was interested in and more?  Color me skeptical.

Biblical scholars, by and large, do not "get" what the Torah is or how it works or if they do, don't particularly care what thousands of years of Rabbinic scholarship has to say on the topic.  From old school Wellhausen and Graf type criticism to the newer (and in some ways stranger) critiques of  Friedman and Kugel the common denominator is a rejection of what the Classical Jewish legal tradition and our received wisdom has to say on behalf of itself in favor of a clinical "scientific" reading of the text.  This is essentially like gutting a live cat to admire its fur - leaving the (now confused) reader with a neutered, superficial and infantilized "reading" of the (now strange and mostly useless) text.  It also renders the text and tradition incapable of being mined for its wisdom - a wisdom that could be quite valuable for contemporary times.

I invite all interested parties to learn both thoroughly and judge for yourselves.

"Ain't nothing like the real thing..."

Marvin Gaye

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Actually, Science Is Validating Theology

There's a common misapprehension in the world at large that there's an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity and that the greater one's level of disbelief the more "enlightened" he or she is.  This disbelief is often correlated to the disbeliever's notion that science has destroyed any hope for theology to be taken seriously and that the days of those who stubbornly refuse to see "reason" are numbered.

I don't think so.

Ironically, it is science itself which is convincing more and more non-believers that there is a lot more afoot in reality than meets the eye.  The truth is that the more that science discovers about the nature of the material world the more implausible it becomes to explain it through purely material means.  Even the (open-minded) atheists are beginning to see this as is perhaps best illustrated through the publication of NYU philosopher Thomas Nagels's book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  This is worth a thorough read.

I also highly recommend the work of doctor, columnist, social commentator and historian of science and medicine James Le Fanu.  His most recent book Why Us: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves "investigates the paradox where the major developments in genetics (including the Human Genome Project) and neuroscience of the past two decades have inadvertently revealed the limits of an exclusively scientific account of the form and attributes of the living world and the exceptionality of the human mind."  So here we have a man of science who feels that science is helping us to understand a) the limits of science and b) the conclusion that a non-materialist explanation for life is becoming unavoidable.

Finally, here's an example of a scientist whose scientific exploration specifically lead him from disbelief to an embrace of both science and spirituality.  According to his bio, Douglas Ell "grew up in Connecticut, and graduated early from MIT, where he double majored in math and physics. He then obtained a masters in theoretical mathematics from the University of Maryland. After graduating from law school, magna cum laude, he became a prominent attorney. As a lawyer Ell learned how to sift through competing arguments and the importance of carefully considering different points of view, skills which he has now used to untangle the confused and often emotional relationship between science and religion.  His legal training and work, combined with his academic science background and a lifetime of independent study, has given him a uniquely grounded approach to science, religion, and philosophy. Ell's approach is characterized by a sense of wonder and appreciation, rather than dogma."  You can have a look at what he has to say in his new book Counting To God: a Personal Journey Through Science to Belief.

"Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

- Jerry Garcia 

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Revelation At Sinai Was Real

We've all heard the sensible saying that history is written by the victors, but on second reflection it should seem clear that it’s not the history itself that is written but rather the victors’ feelings about that history.  For example, in the late 18th Century the British had taken to calling our national hero – George Washington – a “mad man” and libeled our storied Minute Men as “terrorists.”  Which was it – as we said, or they?  Obviously, the answer is both –depending solely on one’s interpretation of the events.  Nonetheless, what’s one facet of the general disagreement that the Colonists and their former patrons across the pond could readily agree on?  That the war occurred, the generals led, the battles raged and that the United States was born as a result.  No sane person ever suggested that it was all just an elaborate hoax, or a myth.

The reason this is, is due to the fact that when large groups of people experience an event together (details and feelings not withstanding) it becomes part of the collective conscious of that people, or groups of people and is passed on as what we later call “history.”  It’s why we believe what we do about what has previously occurred.  Sticking with the Washington example – would it be possible to suggest that the general had not in fact been selected as our first president, but rather someone named Jedidiah Harrison (for instance) who had proven such an unmitigated incompetent that they just quietly scrubbed him from the records and let it be known that Washington would hence forth be known as the first (and only first) president?  The answer is no.  And the reason is that there would simply have been too many people aware of poor Harrison’s appointment to casually sweep it under the rug.  In other words, upon entering into the awareness of a sufficient mass of people, an event of national scope will be impossible to delete from the collective national “hard drive.”  A critical corollary of this fact is that it would be equally impossible to introduce a false event (one that had never actually occurred) into the national consciousness.
There are many ways to start a religion, but the best – based on its overwhelming abundance – seems to be a single-person revelation.  In fact, a quick survey of the world’s major religions (or a longer one of the hundreds of extant religious systems and their thousands of offshoots) reveals that it’s the only method – with one notable exception.  Unlike what was depicted in “The Ten Commandments,” Moses was far from alone when hearing those classic maxims on the mountain.  As the Torah says “…and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered.  Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward God.”  (Ex. 19:16-17)  And “These words God spoke to your entire congregation on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick cloud – a great voice, never to be repeated…” (Deut 5:19).  In other words, this was a national event – the kind you can’t trick people into believing.
So here we have a people (who have doggedly clung to the belief in this occurrence and its consequent behavioral implications and lifestyle choices) for more than three millennia – often at the risk of life and limb.  Just how did they come to hold the impression that the Infinite – the Creator of pollination, the Krebs cycle and the weak and strong nuclear forces, etc – directly communicated to several million of them?  It’s one thing for an impressive and charismatic figure to stumble in from the desert and claim “enlightenment” or prophecy, perhaps perform a few feats of wonder and then announce that he is channeling God’s will.  That’s the way to do it – in as much as it can’t be confirmed or denied.  But it’s quite another for that same guy to inform the crowds that they themselves heard the voice of God!  Just how would that work?  So again, the fact is that the vast majority of Jews have (at least until very recently) always accepted the revelation as fact.  What are the possibilities of how this came to pass?  How did the first believers arrive at their belief?  Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb (a former professor of mathematical logic at Johns Hopkins) outlines the possibilities in his treatise “Living Up To the Truth.”
1.       The event did not take place.  Rather, someone invented it and sold it as true.  This sale could have occurred at two theoretical junctures, a) around the time when the event was said to have taken place or b) long after the event was said to have taken place.  Most would agree that a) is just not going to close the deal, but what about b)?  As Rabbi Gottlieb correctly explains “it is simply not credible to tell an entire nation that their collective ancestors witnessed such an earth-shattering event and that it was forgotten.  It would be impossible to explain why the memory of the event disappeared.”  Even more so since the Torah says its contents will never be forgotten.  Finally, if such a hoax was indeed possible, we should expect to have a legendary “hero” figure that was credited with reintroducing this incredible information to the populace and no such figure exists in Jewish history.
2.       The event took place. “Oh please rabbi,” I can hear many agitated readers saying.  “Doesn’t the fact that the Holocaust took place just a few decades ago and is already denied by millions prove that you can convince people of anything?”  No, I would say.  It just proves that it’s possible for anyone to deny true history if they are sufficiently motivated to do so.  In fact, just how do we know that the Holocaust occurred?  Pictures of mass graves and crematoria?  I doubt that those photos contain more than a few thousand bodies – and who’s to say they’re even pictures of Jewish bodies?  Nazi records?  Better, but records are easily falsified.  The real way we know is as I do – my great aunt Muncie was in Auschwitz and told me about her experiences directly.  I have told her story to my children and they will tell it to theirs.  When many thousands corroborate these events and pass them on as fact then we know with certainty that the event was real.
Many religious systems have borrowed various concepts from Judaism – from Sabbath observance to dietary laws to moral code.  If it is so easy to scam the masses, why wouldn't they borrow our revelation narrative?  After all – millions of people simultaneously hearing the voice of God seems a lot more impressive and authoritative than just one.  I posit to you that they don’t because they can’t.  Their founders weren’t fools and knew full well that they couldn't possibly convince a whole nation to accept a hoax as their national history.  Conversely, the only reason the Torah is able to make such an outlandish (and historically anomalous) assertion is because it actually happened.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Was Maimonides Doing in the Guide for the Perplexed?

First of all let it be clear that I am aware that in the modern world it is the most unpopular thing to suggest any form of restriction or reticence towards our approach to questions of understanding the nature of God, Torah, and our universe. I afford every human being the right to their own opinion and offer nothing but respectful discourse and discussion. I have also learned the Guide for the Perplexed and espouse its usefulness. 

That being said, I see a popular trend emerging in some parts of  the Jewish world today which are deeply concerning. Maimonides and select other great Jewish scholars in our past are being used or invoked as role models for "open inquiry", "rationalist approaches", and even the wholesale "modernization of Judaism". Those who invoke the Maimonides and the Guide for the Perplexed as just such a permission, should remind themselves of the fact that at least some amount of empirical query into the deeper nature of our universe is clearly forbidden by the Torah itself as well as the tradition. 

The Talmud in Chagiga talks about the prohibition of exploring "mah lifnim umah leachor" (what is beyond us).  The Talmud in Sanhedrin prohibits reading "sefarim chitzonim" (foreign works).  The medieval sages there translate this to mean learning the works of Aristotle and his friends. The Talmud in Berachos forbids teaching "Chochmas Yevanis" (Greek Wisdom).

Maimonides himself in "Hilchos Avodas kochavim" chapter 2 halacha 3 (Laws Concerning Idolatry) says that the prohibition of "Lo Sassuru" (the Torah prohibition against following the desires of ones heart and eyes) prohibits a person from exploring through open inquiry any topic that may take a person away or cause them to doubt or question any fundamental precept of our faith. 

This is so deeply rooted in Jewish law that even the medieval sages themselves felt it necessary to bring Maimonides and others like him to task for having gone "against" these prohibitions. 

The main justification that others offered for Maimonides is that it was a time of crisis for the Jewish people who were being pulled into the seductive ideas of the day.  He was someone who had completely mastered all areas of Torah and could handle approaching philosophy without considerable danger. Furthermore, the Rivash then tacks on at the end of his responsa about Maimonides that "and even still he was led astray in certain things" and "therefore we should make a "kal vechomer" (a fortiori logical inference) about ourselves in this matter". 

Others (see igros kodesh for the Lubavitcher rebbe) have clearly pointed out that there are blatant contradictions between what Maimonides wrote and codified as Jewish law in his Mishneh Torah and what he wrote in the guide for the perplexed. There are numerous examples of these contradictions and they are startling in their import. This inconsistency has forced many great scholars to suggest that the guide for the perplexed was deliberately "stretching" the possible understandings of the Torah to their outward limits in order to appeal to those Jews who had lost their way. That's hardly something that can be pointed to as a text calling for modernization. If anything the modern minded person should feel a little cheapened by the notion behind the Guide for the Perplexed since at least one way of looking at it was that it was somewhat in-genuine in its motivation.  

So whereas many scholars who followed Maimonides accept the underlying legitimacy of such an undertaking as the Guide for the Perplexed, that still comes with terms and conditions, red flags, and cautionary notes for the rest of us. One also can not simply slough off these critiques of the later scholars by saying "how could they know what Maimonides intended? This is true because Maimonides himself codified as law in Mishneh Torah the prohibition of doing precisely what he then did in the Guide. He also clearly leaves serious internal contradictions between what he wrote in Mishneh Torah and the Guide and it is quite clear that he did not mean to retract what he wrote in Mishneh Torah. In as much as this is the case it is implicit in Maimonides own methods that one or both of the above suggestions were true. This is not simply later scholars trying to dismiss the value of the Guide with claims of hearsay.

When one takes a step back for just a moment and tries to look objectively at the Maimonides' intention in writing the Guide for the Perplexed it is pretty clear that we can't simply utilize it as a basis for the types of open inquiries, rationalist thinking, and all the more so the systematic modernization of Judaism we currently see trending today. Let us not forget that the Maimonides himself codified in the Mishneh Torah many laws that are very unpopular and cause many people with more modern orientation to squirm. He certainly never backtracked from any of those positions by writing the Guide for the Perplexed. It would hardly be a strong sign of integrity to then turn around and invoke the Guide for as the source for our modern approach to Torah. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Kurt Godel's God Proof

The Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel is widely considered to be one of the most significant logicians of all time - finding peers only in the likes of Aristotle and Frege.  At the age of 25 he published his famous "Incompleteness Theorems" which demonstrated that most important mathematical axioms are essentially unprovable and that finding a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics is not possible.  Most of us don't really get this but feel comfortable saying that he's obviously no lightweight.

Though he began work on his Ontological Argument in the 40's he didn't share it with anyone until 1970 and wasn't formally published until 1987!  Apparently, Godel didn't want anyone mistakenly thinking that he "actually believed in God."  Right.  Heaven forfend he should upset the apple cart in the academic bubble of Princeton and risk losing his job (not much has changed).  Strangely, despite his supposed lack of belief he argued extensively in favor of an afterlife and told the sociologist Burke Grandjean that his "belief was theistic, not pantheistic, following Leibniz rather than Spinoza.  After his death, his wife Adele told Hao Wang that "he was religious and read the Bible in bed every Sunday morning."  So much for theists being weak-minded and brainwashed group-think victims.

Have a look at his proof:


\text{Ax. 1.} & \left\{P(\varphi) \wedge \Box \; \forall x[\varphi(x) \to \psi(x)]\right\} \to P(\psi) \\

\text{Ax. 2.} & P(\neg \varphi) \leftrightarrow \neg P(\varphi) \\

\text{Th. 1.} & P(\varphi) \to \Diamond \; \exists x[\varphi(x)] \\

\text{Df. 1.} & G(x) \iff \forall \varphi [P(\varphi) \to \varphi(x)] \\

\text{Ax. 3.} & P(G) \\

\text{Th. 2.} & \Diamond \; \exists x \; G(x) \\

\text{Df. 2.} & \varphi \text{ ess } x \iff \varphi(x) \wedge \forall \psi \left\{\psi(x) \to \Box \; \forall y[\varphi(y) \to \psi(y)]\right\} \\

\text{Ax. 4.} & P(\varphi) \to \Box \; P(\varphi) \\

\text{Th. 3.} & G(x) \to G \text{ ess } x \\
\text{Df. 3.} & E(x) \iff \forall \varphi[\varphi \text{ ess } x \to \Box \; \exists y \; \varphi(y)] \\
\text{Ax. 5.} & P(E) \\
\text{Th. 4.} & \Box \; \exists x \; G(x)

Pretty straightforward no?  Nonetheless, I hear from materialists all the time who blithely wave it off with a "that was discredited a long time ago" attitude.  They don't get it but are perfectly happy to assert that there is "no evidence" that there's a God.  Right, no evidence besides for the thousands of pages penned on the subject by many of the world's (universally acknowledged) greatest thinkers.  I find that they often confuse a counter-argument with a refutation so that if anyone, anywhere has disagreed it has (in their minds) been invalidated.

Here's an article from Der Spiegel on the topic to consider: Scientists Use Computer to Mathematically Prove God Exists.  Hey wait, scientists?  Computers?  Logic?  Don't theists just have a bunch of absurd Bronze Age myths to prove their point?

Anyone who's open-minded enough to actually consider Godel's argument and others like it should have a look at Stanford's excellent website.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes

Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer. It's not so much that I can't grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like "I would like to enslave all of humanity" and "I would like a chocolate bar" are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most "non-believers" actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

Let's put this assumption to a test. How would you answer the following series of questions? I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming.

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?

If you answered no, why? As there are finite resources available to us as we plod through our limited number of revolutions on this planet, wouldn't it be in your interest to maximize them -- especially considering that a non-functional carcass provides little to no personal or societal benefit (and is a little unpleasant)? If you suggest that it represents something that was important to you and therefore you are inclined to treat it with more respect I would ask, "so what?" Your notions of respect and importance are subjective, non-intellectual whims that in any case (as we've said) are in reality nothing more than tiny electrical blips in your skull and worth far less than cash.
Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer. 

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts? 

If yes, why? As no one will ever know what transpired and it will soon all be over in any event, what difference could it possibly make what you do in your final moments? I again see only two possibilities for the non-believer -- either you suspect that there is an inexplicable but real import to fateful decisions such as these or you have been conditioned to act a certain way -- one that is more in sync with the logical conclusions of a believer's worldview and not your own. As physicist HP Yockey suggested of the materialist's viewpoint, "if humans are only matter, it is no worse to burn a ton of humans than to burn a ton of coal." If you answer that it makes no difference whatsoever, then you are two for two (and I am impressed with your consistency).

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?

For those (almost all of us) who are inclined to say yes, the question once again is why? What precisely is the root of their significance? What difference does a painting make? You can't eat it and it will not help your genes to reproduce (for whatever unclear reason it is that they "want" to do that in the first place). Does it truly matter whether or not you love your children as long as you provide for their basic needs? And if you suggest that love is a basic need that was cleverly "designed" by evolution to help parents to provide for their offspring, then does it matter if you only pretend to love them? Or do you believe that love has an intrinsic meaning of its own -- one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis? If you do, ask yourself why, as it would not seem to effectively square with the non-believer's weltanschauung.
If you are willing to define the human experience as nothing more than an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces acting in concert, then at the end of the day, you necessarily concede that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless. What difference, then, does it make if you (or others) choose to completely disregard concepts like kindness, decency and love? The non-believer is duty bound to say that it makes no difference whatsoever, as meaning -- in all of its varied splendor -- resides exclusively with those who acknowledge its basis. One that is neither blind nor random nor physical.
If you chose the non-materialistic answer to any of these questions (no, yes, yes) you may be more of a believer than you think.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Iron-Clad Proof of God

A few months back I had the pleasure of watching the film "In Our Own Time," a surprisingly engaging documentary about the Bee Gees. Toward the end of the film, Barry Gibb mused that even a few years back you wouldn't be caught dead putting on a Bee Gees record, but now they were slowly making their way back to the public's embrace. It occurs to me that (in some ways) philosophical argumentation is like pop music -- moving in and out of cycles of favorability and that what was once "uncool" can be rediscovered and mined for its wisdom anew. What is known as the Cosmological Argument (Prime Mover) is a case in point. Far from being outdated, obsolete or refuted, it continues to sing its compelling tune of logic and reason for those who are willing to properly understand it -- and aren't too cool to spin the classics.

The argument has enjoyed a diverse and multicultural history and has been expounded by many, including: Aristotle (pagan), Al-Gazali (Muslim) who in turn influenced Aquinas (Christian) and Maimonides (Jewish). The Al-Gazali formulation (though it will be rejected) goes like this:

1.  Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2.  The Universe began to exist;
3.  Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Aquinas further modified the argument to assert that the universe need not have existed and, inasmuch as that's true, it is entirely contingent -- something that is not necessary or intrinsic. He therefore held (unlike Al-Gazali) that even if the universe has always existed, it nonetheless owes its existence to an un-caused cause which he understood to be God.

Perhaps you will now suggest that there may be an infinite series of contingent causes (and therefore no need to evoke a Prime Mover or un-caused Cause). The theological philosopher Edward Feser has done a great job explaining this facet of the argument (and the argument as a whole) in his book "The Last Superstition." By way of analogy, he has the reader envision a hand which is holding a stick which is pushing a stone. Would it be accurate to suggest that the stick is pushing the stone? Not really, as the hand is doing the pushing. But what allows the hand to push in the first place? The arm, which in turn is dependent on the muscles which are dependent on cells which are dependent on molecular structure which is dependent on atomic structure which is dependent on the primary forces of gravitation, electro-magnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces which are dependent on ... what? What we'll see is that even if there were an infinite series of contingent causes such as these, we would still need a final, un-caused cause to get the ball rolling. Without it, nothing could unfold as nothing would have started the process.

For example, let's say that there were an infinite array of mirrors reflecting one to the other and an image of a bear in each mirror. Would it be possible to suggest that the image of the bear stretches on infinitely with no actual bear to start the reflections reflecting? Surely not. Even if there were an infinite number of mirrors, there would still need to be a real bear (a cause) who initiated the reflective series.

Say you were driving along the quiet and bucolic countryside when you're forced to (patiently) wait at a train crossing. All you see is a series of flatbed cars that seems to go on for miles. After an uncomfortably long wait you realize that this is an infinite series of flatbed rail cars! Would it then be logical to conclude that there is nothing actually pulling these cars -- no locomotive? That would clearly be absurd, as you know very well that flatbed rail cars have no power of locomotion, i.e., they are contingent/dependent on an outside force to move. As such, you can (and must) conclude that even if there are an infinite number of these cars -- or of anything (any series of contingencies) -- there must be an original, non-contingent force that is doing the moving, a force that has not been, and cannot be influenced by any other. This force is God.

Many people would be tempted to suggest that even if it were true that there was such a force, going ahead and calling it "God" would quickly strain credulity. Nonetheless, as Professor Feser beautifully explains, logic alone would demonstrate that the force in question would have all of the characteristics of the classical Western notion of the Creator. For instance, inasmuch as there must be an ultimate non-contingent force, its non-contingency indicates that (as held in monotheism) it must be singular, for if there were more than one mover each would be limited -- and hence contingent -- deriving their power from some earlier force. Such a force would also need to be immaterial as material things are changeable and therefore contingent. This being would not come into or go out of existence but simply always exist. Finally, as the source of all change, this prime mover would be the ultimate cause of things coming to have the qualities and attributes that they do -- eminently, if not formally. Inasmuch as that would include all powers, we would conclude that this being is all powerful and all knowledgeable.

There are many common misconceptions that prevent (even very intelligent) thinkers from properly appreciating the import of this argument. Here's a sampling:

1.  It does not rest on the premise that "everything has a cause" which would leave open the question of what caused God. Rather the argument is that whatever comes into existence (is contingent) has a cause. Therefore, to ask "what caused God?" is really to ask "what caused the thing that cannot in principle have a cause?"

2.  Some object that the argument doesn't prove that any particular religious belief structure is true. That's correct but irrelevant. Despite the fact that Professor Feser and I part company about four-fifths of the way down the theological path, we walk lockstep most of the way -- all monotheists do.

3.  Many people will say that "science has shown such and such" and therefore the argument is false. The reality is that most versions of the argument do not depend on particular scientific claims in any way.

4.  It's not a "God of the Gaps" argument. It is not intended to plug a hole in our scientific knowledge or asserted as a "best explanation" for evidence.

It seems to me that an open-minded thinker, free of biases and misconceptions, would have no choice but to acknowledge the veracity of this argument. When properly understood, it is simple, direct -- and tough to refute. Why then, despite its obvious and compelling line of reasoning, does it seem to have so few backers? Perhaps this (refreshingly honest) quote from NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel provides the answer:

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Monday, June 16, 2014

William Lane Craig vs Richard Dawkins

Professor Richard Dawkins is an articulate speaker and a gifted and entertaining writer.  He also may well be a gifted Biologist though I don't have any truly independent way to verify it given my lack of biological training.  What I'm pretty sure he's not is a gifted theologian or philosopher.  Despite his continued success and myriad accolades, Professor Dawkins has been taken on (manhandled some might say) by the likes of David Stove, David Berlinski, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Edward Feser and many others.

There seems to be an assumption in the world at large that the tide and the times favor Dawkins and his materialist approach to existence.  I beg to differ.  There are a host of highly trained (and highly intelligent) voices out there who lay bare the deficiencies of the canonized atheist lines of argumentation - often with a flare and humor of their own.  Professional atheist Sam Harris has noted that Professor William Lane Craig "seems to strike fear into the hearts of my atheist colleagues" and with good reason as is demonstrated in the video below where Professor Dawkins failed to even show for their debate at Oxford.

Professor Craig does a fine job out outlining the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.  There may very well be excellent refutations for this argument, but they are not emerging from the mouth nor pen of Richard Dawkins.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

(A Whole Bunch Of) Answers to Commonly Noted Biblical Discrepancies

Were plants or humans created first?
A. Plants (Gen. 1:12, 27)
B. Humans (Gen. 2:5-7)

Talmud – Plants created first on day three but didn't emerge from the ground until day six when humanity was created.
Ramban/Abarbanel – First plants created on day 3 and brought out fully from the ground by an act of God’s will but as of yet did not begin to regenerate through growth in their natural way until day 6 when the rain started.
Ibn Ezra – The grasses started growing already in the normal way from day 3 but the “siach” which he says is fruit trees, only started to fully emerge and grow the way they do now on day 6

**Note according to all opinions plants were CREATED first, and the later verse is coming to teach some detail or qualification in the order of full emergence into the way they are today.

When was the divine name Yahweh first revealed?
A. Before Noah (Gen. 4:1,26)
B. It was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush (Ex. 15:2-3)

Exodus 6:2 indicates clearly that The “shem havayah” (Tetragrammaton) was revealed to Moses but NOT to the Patriarchs. However, one should not think that this excludes Adam. Clearly in Genesis 2:16 and 3:9 “Hashem Elokim” speaks to Adam. See Nefesh Hachaim Shar 1 Ch 15 who says that the level of Divine perception of Adam was equal to that of Moses. In another verse the Torah testifies that there was no one who had prophecy at the level of Moses (thus indicating that nevertheless in prophecy Moses surpassed Adam). The distinction between Adam and Moses was therefore subtle and slight. Both of them were above the Patriarchs.

Around how long did people live to in Noah's time?
A. 750 years (Gen. 5:25-32)
B. 120 years (Gen. 6:3) 

They were still living until about 750 but then at that time there was a decree that it should start to be 120 (ish)

How long did Noah's flood last?
A. 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:17)
B. 375 days (Gen. 7:24, 8:14)

Genesis 7:11 the flood began when Noah was 600 yrs old on the 17th day of the 2nd month. There is discussion about the exact chronology of how long each stage was and how to read it into the verses. In Genesis 8:14 when Noah was 601 yrs old on the 27th day of the 2nd month the flood was then totally over and the earth was totally dry. Thus the correct answer is B though “the heavy rains and burst from the depths” was forty days and forty nights.

Were different languages spoken before the Tower of Babel?
A. Yes (Gen. 10:20)
B. No (Gen 11:1)

1) Torah Temima and Daas Zekeinim say that everyone knew and spoke Hebrew. In addition everyone had started to develop their own regional languages.
2) There are other sources that seem to indicate that in Genesis 10:20 the Torah was speaking  about the future split of languages. See Malbim
3) A third idea is that "lashon" indicates a form of dialect “tongue” as opposed to “safah” which according to scholars seems to be a more general term to define a national language.

Is it all right to marry your half-sister?
A. Yes (Gen. 20:11-12)
B. No (Lev. 18:9, 20:17)

The law is different for a non-Jew (and those living before the giving of the Torah) and for an Jew (after the giving of the Torah).

Is it all right to marry two women who are sisters?
A. Yes (Gen. 29:26-28)
B. No (Lev. 18:18)

There is an extensive discussion about how to view the Patriarchs since they had already taken on Jewish law (though voluntarily). Jacob seems to have been punished for marrying two sisters. Others say it was ok outside Israel but when he came into the land Rachel died etc.

To whom was Joseph sold into slavery to by his brothers?
A. Some Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:27-28)
B. Some Midianite merchants (Gen. 37:28, 36)

The Talmud says it was both.  He was sold more than once before getting to Egypt.

Has anyone seen God face to face and lived?
A. Jacob; Also: Moses, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders (Gen. 32:31; Ex. 24:9-11)
B. No (Ex. 33:20)

The verse regarding Jacob says he saw "elohim" face to face clearly a reference to an angel (which we see many times referred to as elohim).  By Moses, the Elders, Nadav and Avihu it doesn't say face to face. Therefore, as the verse in Exodus 33:20 testifies, the answer is quite clearly no. A person can not see YHVH face to face and live – not even Moses.

If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, should they both be killed for it?
A. No (Gen. 38:24-26)
B. Yes (Lev. 20:12)

Before the giving of the Torah and for non-Jews answer is yes. After the giving of the Torah for Jews answer is no.

Did Jacob know about Joseph's sons before he blessed them?
A. Yes (Gen. 48:5)
B. No (Gen. 48:8)

Quite clearly he knew about Joseph’s two sons before he blessed them as is written in 48:5. However, when he went to bless them he was old and could no longer see clearly (see 48:10). He thus saw there were two people in front of him but couldn't make out who was who. He thus asked Joseph "who are these" in 48:8.

After Moses broke the first set of Ten Commandments, were the commandments written on the second set the same as the ones written on the broken set?
A. Yes, they were the same (Ex. 34:1, Deu. 10:1)
B. No, the second set had ceremonial laws (Ex. 34:10-28)

There is no indication that these ceremonial laws were on the tablets though they were part of the “covenant”.

Did God give commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices during the flight from Egypt?
A. Yes (Ex. 20:24; Lev. 1:1-7:38; Jer. 33:17-18 [Hebrew Bible only])
B. No (Isa. 43:22-24; Jer. 7:21-23 [Hebrew and Greek Septuagint]; Amos 5:25-27)

Metzudos says context of verse in Isaiah 43 is talking about days of Achaz and not the Departure from Egypt. As regards the verse in Jeremiah, the Metzudos says it means that bringing sacrifices was not part of the basic foundation of the covenant but rather "kabalas ol malchus shamayim" (receiving the yolk of Heaven) was. However, bringing sacrifices was mentioned “as having the weight of any other individual mitzvah”.

Who were allowed to be priests?
A. Descendants of Aaron, with normal Levites acting as assistants (Num. 3:6-10, 16:8-10, 18:1-7)
B. Levites (Deu. 18:13)
C. Non-Levites like Samuel the Ephramite (1 Sam. 7:10)

Only sons of Aaron. Levites do have an accompanying part in the service though. Samuel only says that he “brought a sacrifice” not that he was a priest.

When was the priesthood granted to the descendants of Aaron?
A. After Moses presented the second set of Ten Commandments (Lev. 8:30)
B. After Phineas killed the Israelite who married a Midianite (Num. 25:10-13)

Leviticus 8:30. Phineas was not a priest based on the rules of Leviticus 8:30 but was uniquely grandfathered in after the incident of Cozbi and Zimri..

Was it against the law to marry your sister in David's time?
A. Yes (Lev. 18:11)
B. No (2 Sam. 13:13)

Marrying a sister is forbidden. Amnon and Tamar is a deeply misunderstood story. See the Talmud in Sanhedrin 21a. Tamar was born of Maachah before she converted. Thus Tamar was herself a convert. Amnon was born to Maachah after she had already convertedand thus he was a Jew. The prophet is refering to Amnon as her “brother” in a manner of speaking because that was the “perception” and even the expectation of how it should have been treated (though Amnon couldn't control himself). The event was a scandal in any event so there isn't really any difficulty from Leviticus.

Where were sacrifices to be held?
A. In one centralized place of worship (Deu. 12:4-7)
B. Anywhere (1 Sam. 7:10-11)

There was a time when "bamos" (personal alters) were forbidden and time of "heter bamos" when they were permitted.

Who seduced the Israelites into worshipping the Ba'al of Peor?
A. The Moabites (Num. 25:1-2)
B. The Midianites (Num 25:16-18; Num. 31:15-17)

It was the elders of Midian who gave the council to the Moabites to use their daughters in this way.

Did God give any of the Ammonites' land to any of the tribes of Israel?
A. No, it was meant for Lot's descendants (Deu. 2:19)
B. Yes, half of it went to the Gadites (Josh. 13:24-25)

This land was acquired through the rule of “Ammon Umoav tiharu b”Sichon” that is to say that King Sichon took these lands from Ammon and Moav first and thus there was no contradiction to the promise of those lands going to the descendants of Lot since the Jews got them from Sichon.

Will sons be punished for the sins of their fathers?
A. No (Deu. 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; Ez. 18:14-20)
B. Yes (Lev. 26:39-42; Josh. 7:24-25; Isa. 14:21)

Only if they themselves continue to do the same misdeeds as their fathers.

Who conquered Debir?
A. Joshua (Josh. 10:38)
B. Othniel (Josh. 15:17)

Joshua conquered Devir as per 10:38.  Othniel conquered Kiriyas Sefer. Now, on the surface it seems strange because the verse says that Devir used to be called Kiriyas Sefer. However, the Talmud says that this verse is teaching that Othniel "conquered" the forgotten 3000 laws from Moses's time which were nicknamed Kiriyas Sefer.

Did Joshua conquer Jerusalem?
A. Yes (Josh. 12:10)
B. No (Josh. 15:63)

Joshua conquered it. However, due to the oath God made to Avimelech whose descendants held a tower in Jerusalem they couldn't conquer it in its entirety until the days of David. See Radak on Joshua 15:63.

Did Joshua conquer Gezer?
A. Yes (Josh. 12:12)
B. No (Josh. 16:10)

He conquered the territory and the inhabitants became “indentured workers” for the Jews, but they didn't eradicate them completely from the area (as with a few other places where they fell short of the expectations to rid the land of them).

Did King Saul know David before he fought Goliath?
A. Yes (1 Sam. 16:19)
B. No (1 Sam. 17:57-58)

Ralbag and Radak say clearly Saul knew him. The later verse is coming to teach that there was something new and deeper that Saul was now discovering in David that he had not known before.

Who killed Goliath?
A. David (1 Sam. 17:51)
B. Elhanan (2 Sam. 21:19)

David killed him. The later verse calls David by the name “Elchanan” and other nicknames - all for the sake of homiletical teachings about the event of the killing Goliath.

Did God want any Moabites entering his assembly?
A. No, even down the the 10th generation (Deu. 23:2-3)
B. David was descended from the Moabites and his sons became priests (Ruth 4:9-10,21-22; 2 Sam. 8:18)

The verse says that a Moavi (male) is forbidden and not Moavis (female). Ruth was a Moavis and thus permitted. It was only the males to tenth generation that were forbidden.

How many children did Saul's daughter Michal have?
A. None (2 Sam. 6:23)
B. Five (2 Sam. 21:8)

See the Talmud in Sanhedrin 19b.  Michal raised the 5 orphaned children of Merav. This teaches us that someone who raises the child of another is as if they bore them. Also, it isn't clear that Michal had no children of her own. She may have ahd but they died as punishment for her chastising David for dancing in front of the Ark. Or she didn’t have children before but one was born at her death.

Who told David to take a census of Israel and Judah?
A. God (2 Sam. 24:1)
B. Satan (1 Chron. 21:1)

See Radak on Samuel. He says that the Jews of the day had hidden sins and God wanted to punish them. He thus subtly placed the idea in the heart of David to count them in order that through an “unnecessary” counting the wrath of God could be aroused (as we know what happens when you unnecessarily count Jews). Thus in Chronicles it is called the Satan that gave the idea to David since it's the Satan who is God's messenger to meet out the punishment for transgression.

How many years of famine did David have to choose from?
A. 7 (2 Sam. 24:13)
B. 3 (1 Chron. 21:12)

Metzudos brings that there had already been 3 years and it would continue anyway until the next harvest. David’s choice was therefore 3  more years of famine (for a total of 7) or the 3 that had already passed plus punishment by sword (for 3 months) or blight (for three days)

Did King Saul ask God for help before he consulted a medium?
A. Yes (1 Sam. 27:5-7)
B. No (1 Chron. 10:13-14)

See Radak in Chronicles. Actually Saul asked God first but didn't repent properly and quickly turned to the necromancer thus equating that form of inquiry with inquiry of God. Thus the prophet equates it as if he didn't turn to God first.

How long did King Omri rule Israel?
A. 12 years (1 Kings 16:23)
B. 7 years, between King Asa's 31st and 38th year (1 Kings 16:29)

See Rashi there who explains that for the first five years of his rule he shared the power with Tivni so his rule was incomplete. He did however have 7 years of complete rulership.

Did King Asa of Judah remove the 'high places' of worship?
A. No (1 Kings 15:14)
B. Yes (2 Chron. 14:3)

The verse in Kings is talking about the alters that had once been built for the sake of heaven at the earlier time of when private alters were permitted).

Did King Jehoshaphat of Judah remove the 'high places'?
A. No (1 Kings 22:43)
B. Yes (2 Chron. 17:6)

Yes.  See the commentaries on Chronicles.

Did God ordain the massacre at Jezreel?
A. Yes (2 Kings 9:6-10; 2 Kings 10:30)
B. No (Hosea 1:4)

God ordained the massacre as per Kings. The verse in Hoshea is saying that now God plans to pay the reward for those who listened to him and carried out the massacre of Jezreel. See Metzudos.

How was King Ahaziah of Judah killed?
A. He was wounded on his chariot and died in Megiddo (2 Kings 9:27)
B. He was captured near Joram and put to death by Jehu (2 Chron. 22:9)

See Radak. The Talmud says that Yehu’s band shot arrows one of which hit Achaz and killed him on his chariot. The Radak adds that based on the verse in Chronicles this happened near Joram while being pursued by Jehu who was planning to capture him and put him to death. Actually it seems that the arrow that killed him was a “lucky shot” in that it was long range and the shooter didn't have it “aimed at him in the classic sense.”

How many years did King Jehoiakim of Judah reign?
A. 11 years (2 Kings 23:36)
B. 3 years (Daniel 1:1-2)

The verse in Daniel means during the third year of his rebellion which was the eleventh year of his rule.

How old was Jehoiachin when he became king of Judah?
A. 18 (2 Kings 24:8)
B. 8 (2 Chron. 36:9)

Jehoiachin was put into a position of second to the throne when he was 8 since there were people who favored someone else to succeed the throne. He actually became king 10 years later.

Who ruled Babylon after King Nebuchenezzar?
A. Evil-Marduk (2 Kings 25:27)
B. Belshazzar (Daniel 5:2)

See the Talmud in Megilla 11b.  Evil Merudah first then Belshatzar. Historians are in agreement on this point as well. The verse in Daniel is worded in a strange way.

Should you rejoice at the death of your enemy?
A. Yes (Psalms 58:10)
B. No (Proverbs 24:17)

The verse in Psalms is saying that the joy is in seeing the justice of God and the fulfillment of the promise that justice will be done in His world eventually. However, to actually rejoice in the misfortune of the wicked themselves as people is somegthing to avoid.

Where did King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria die?
A. Somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and Mt. Zion after a successful [but undocumented] campaign against Egypt (Daniel 11:42-45)
B. In Persia after hearing his armies had been put to flight in Judah (1 Maccabees 6:5,16)

Daniel is authoritative over Maccabees.