Monday, June 29, 2015

God: He Who Must Not Be Named

A central theme of JK Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the Ministry of Magic's unshakable desire to categorically ignore the return of the dark lord of Hogwarts - the evil Voldemort.  Poor Harry's pleadings and warnings fall only on (fear-induced) deaf ears of those who would prefer a blissful non-reality over a challenging and scary actuality. Eventually, like in the Munich Agreement or the Greek monetary system, the actual rises up and obliterates the merely hoped for.

This attitude leaped to mind when I read "Humankind's Existentially Lucky Numbers" in last week's NYT's. The writer, George Johnson, gives a good overview of the "Fine Tuning" argument of physics which essentially attempts to understand why it is that the values of each of the "cosmological constants" such as gravitation, electro-magnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces are so precise as to allow the development of life - an exceedingly unlikely proposition which some scientists have estimated has a 1:10^120 chance of occurring.  (That's a 1 followed by 120 zeros - a number vastly larger than the number of all of the particles in the universe).

Given those odds, it's not hard to understand that scientists are not so willing to just chalk it up to blind luck as Johnson says:

Rejecting the possibility that this was nothing more than a lucky accident, physicists have been looking for some underlying principle — a compelling explanation for why everything could only have unfolded in this particular way.

So we see from this that a) physicists do not have a "compelling explanation" for it, b) it was not due to chance and c) it all had to unfold exactly as it did.

As an example of this conundrum Johnson cites the value of "Alpha:"

If a number called alpha, which governs the strength of electromagnetism, were infinitesimally larger or smaller, stars could not have formed, leaving a lifeless void.  Alpha’s value seems no more predictable than digits randomly spit out by a lottery machine: 0.0072973525698. One of the greatest mysteries of physics, the physicist Richard Feynman called it, “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.”

By man yes, but...

Just what could account for it?  Johnson offers three possibilities:

There are several ways to react to this existential dilemma. We can take a cue from the author Douglas Adams and relish the idea that life, the universe and everything are a grand cosmic fluke. If the universal settings were slightly different, we wouldn’t be here considering the mystery. This is a version of what has come to be called the “weak anthropic principle.”

Taking a more mystical turn are adepts of another doctrine: the strong anthropic principle. Drawing on a controversial interpretation of quantum theory, they propose an Escher-like symbiosis. The universe gives rise to conscious observers, who in turn conjure the universe into existence by the dint of their constant gaze.

Finally there are followers of a middle path, who seek to prove that the universe is not accidental but inevitable, with its set of defining numbers as constrained and mutually consistent as the solution to a Sudoku puzzle.

Really?  That's it?  I sort of appreciate the fact that he's willing to give a nod to the "mystical" which in this case seems only to be a quantum theory retread.  But the elephant in the room would seem to be "He who must not be named."  Is it not at least a logical possibility that a conscious designer set these constants in such a fashion as to enable life to develop?  If it's highly unlikely that it's the result of chance and there are (currently) no other viable ways to explain it then why not (at least) suggest it?

I think the answer is found in one of my favorite scientific quotes:

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between Science and the Supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism ... for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door." (Richard Lewontin, Geneticist)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The 50 Smartest People of Faith

Lately I've been getting a lot of comments to the effect of "rabbi, if you would just read an introductory text book on such and such you would see blah blah blah..." as if I had never considered their dazzling points before.  The non-believer generally has an awfully hard time processing that there are still people in this world who doggedly uphold their faith - to them it's all just so backwards and "unenlightened." One way they cope with it is to assure themselves that the persistence of religiosity is simply due to the imbecility of the religious.  No smart (or at least non-delusional) people could possibly continue to believe what science and logic has (in their minds) thoroughly discredited.

It's with this in mind that I share this piece from called The 50 Smartest People of Faith.  I cordially invite the materialist community to tangle with some of these folks.  Maybe we all might not seem quite so dim after-all.

I'll post the intro and a few profiles here and let you explore the rest through the link:

A few years back, “New Atheist” authors Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett helped to publicize a movement to rechristen atheists as “Brights” (see our feature article on influential atheists here).
This was no doubt mainly because the word “atheist” still has a harsh and aggressive ring in the ears of most ordinary people.
But the corollary—that people of faith are “Dims”—was surely an added benefit, in the minds of the New Atheist publicity men.
Is it really true that most intelligent and well-informed people are atheists, while people of faith tend to be unschooled and credulous?
Far from it.
Unfortunately, in the rancorous debates in this country over the role of religion in our public life, all too often it is simply assumed—by both sides—that religious faith is in conflict with reason (and intelligence). The unspoken assumption is that religion relies exclusively on faith, while science alone is supported by reason.
This idea is utterly mistaken, but because it mostly goes unchallenged, it reinforces the stereotype that atheists are somehow smarter than believers.
One way to combat the erroneous assumption that faith conflicts with reason is by giving greater visibility to living, breathing believers who are also highly intelligent. That is what we are endeavoring to do with this list of “The 50 Smartest People of Faith.”
The qualifications for inclusion on our list are twofold:
(1) Intellectual brilliance, evidenced by a very high level of achievement, whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, literature, the fine arts, or public service; and
(2) Religious faith, evidenced either through explicit personal witness or through publicly professed respect for religion.
By “religious faith,” we mean religion in the monotheistic, or Abrahamic, tradition—which we happen to know best. We do not doubt that a similar list of brilliant and devout Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, Confucianists, Shintoists, and others could easily be drawn up, and we hope it will be, by those qualified to do so.
Most of the individuals on our list have given explicit public witness to their religious faith. However, in a few cases we infer a faith that appears to be implicit in a person’s writings. Needless to say, we do not pretend to see into people’s hearts. Unbeknownst to us, some individuals may have private reservations. But all have declared their deeply held respect for religious faith through their works and/or their public pronouncements.
This list, then, includes living men and women who are both people of faith and people of exceptional intellectual brilliance and professional accomplishment. It is presented in alphabetical order.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about how reason supports religious faith could hardly do better than delve into their scholarship or other creative achievements, by following the links we provide.
Khaled Abou El Fadl (b. 1963)
Abou El Fadl was born in Kuwait. He was trained in traditional Islamic jurisprudence in Kuwait and in Egypt, and also holds a JD from University of Pennsylvania Law School, and a PhD in Islamic law from Princeton University. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA law school, as well as Chair of the Islamic Studies Program at UCLA. Abou El Fadl is the author of many books on Islamic law and politics, several of which have been widely translated, as well as scores of articles in academic journals. His research focuses on the theme of beauty as a core moral value of Islam, as well as on universal themes of humanity, morality, human rights, justice, and mercy. He has publicly opposed the Saudi-based Wahhabi movement, and is a vocal supporter of democracy, pluralism, and women’s rights in Islamic countries. A sometime consultant for the US government, Abou El Fadl  has received recognition from several universities and international governmental bodies, including the University of Oslo’s Human Rights Award. He has been called one of the world’s most influential Arabs.
Books: Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge UP, 2001); And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses (University Press of America, 2001); Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam(University Press of America, 2001; reprinted, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); The Place of Tolerance in Islam, co-author (Beacon Press, 2002); Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women (OneWorld, 2001); Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,co-author (Princeton UP, 2004); The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists(HarperOne, 2005)
Marilyn McCord Adams (b. 1943)
Born Marilyn McCord, Adams was educated at the University of Illinois (AB) and Cornell University (PhD, 1967). She also holds a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary (1986) and a Doctor of Divinity degree from Oxford University (2008). She has taught at UCLA, Yale, and Oxford. Since 2009, she has been Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Adams is an ordained Episcopal priest. She is best known for her work on the Problem of Evil, and more specifically, for her notion of “horrendous” evil—evil so great as to appear inconsistent with any conceivable “soul-building” type of justification (or theodicy) for God’s permitting it to occur. She has also argued in favor of the universal salvation of all souls, no matter how corrupt. Adams gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1998–1999. These were later published as Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology.
Books: The Problem of Evil co-editor (Oxford UP, 1991); Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell UP, 1999); What Sort of Human Nature? Medieval Philosophy and the Systematics of Christology (Marquette University Press, 1999); Wrestling for Blessing (Church Publishing Inc, 2005); Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge UP, 2006); Opening to God (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); Some Later Medieval Theories of the Eucharist: Thomas Aquinas, Gilles of Rome, Duns Scotus, and William Ockham (Oxford UP, 2010)
Werner Arber (b. 1929)
Arber was born in a small town in the canton of Aargau, in northern Switzerland, into a Protestant family. He studied at the famous Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and received his PhD in molecular genetics in 1958 from the University of Geneva. Afterwards, he continued his research into the genetics of the bacteriophage virus at a number of universities in the United States, including the University of Southern California, Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT. He has been a member of the innovative, multidisciplinary Biozentrum at the University of Basel since its inception in 1971. Arber’s work on the genetics of phage played a crucial role in the development of recombinant DNA technology, sparking the biotechnology revolution and earning him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978. He has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome since 1981, and is a member of the Science, Theology, and the Ontological Quest (STOQ) Project. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Arber as President of the Pontifical Academy—the first Protestant to hold that position.
BookGenetic Manipulation: Impact on Man and Society, co-editor (Cambridge UP, 1984)
Benjamin S. Carson (b. 1951)
Carson was born in Detroit, where he was raised in poverty by a single mother. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale and an MD from the University of Michigan. He did his residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, where he became the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery in 1984, at the age of 33. Carson is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1987, he made medical history by being the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the back of the head. He has pioneered many surgical techniques that have become standard in the field of neurosurgery. In 2012, Carson found himself at the center of a national controversy, when he was first invited, then disinvited, and finally re-invited to deliver the commencement address at Emory University. He is the president and co-founder of the Carson Scholars Fund.
BooksGifted Hands 20th Anniversary Edition: The Ben Carson Story (Zondervan, 2011); America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great (Zondervan, 2012)
Stephen L. Carter (b. 1954)
Carter graduated from high school in Ithaca, New York, in 1972, and earned a BA in history from Stanford University in 1976. He received his JD from Yale University in 1979, after which he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, among others. Since 1982, he has taught at Yale Law School, where he is currently the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. Carter is a Roman Catholic. At Yale, he teaches courses on contracts, professional responsibility, ethics in literature, intellectual property, and the law and ethics of war. He is also a prolific author, having published eight volume of political and cultural criticism, as well as five novels. His books Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby and The Culture of Disbelief were widely reviewed and discussed. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Carter also writes a regular opinion column for Christianity Todaymagazine.
Books: Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (Basic Books, 1991); The Culture of Disbelief (Basic Books, 1993); The Emperor of Ocean Park (Random House, 2002)
Simon Conway Morris (b. 1951)
Conway Morris was born in Carshalton, Surrey, and was brought up in London. He studied geology at Bristol University and received his PhD from Cambridge University, where he is currently a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology. Conway Morris was elected a member of the Royal Society at the age of 39, in recognition for his groundbreaking work in paleontology. He has also received numerous other academic awards. In 2005, he gave the Boyle Lectures, and in 2007 he delivered the Gifford Lectures. Conway Morris, who is Anglican, is best known for his field work on the fossil deposits contained in the Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia, which represent some of our best evidence for the nature of the Cambrian Explosion. Conway Morris’s work on the Burgess Shale was popularized by celebrated paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his bestselling work, Wonderful Life (Norton, 1989). However, the two evolutionary biologists subsequently clashed over their differing interpretations of the fossils. Conway Morris has published a number of books, including two which present his interpretations of the Burgess Shale fossils, as well as his general theory of convergent evolution, for a popular audience.
Books: The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford UP, 1998); Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge UP, 2003); The Deep Structure of Biology, editor (Templeton Press, 2008); The Fitness of the Cosmos for Life, co-editor (Cambridge UP, 2008)
Louise S. Cowan (b. 1916)
Born Louise Shillenburg, Cowan received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the poets of the Southern Renaissance of the 1920s at Vanderbilt University. This work was later published as The Fugitive Group (Louisiana State UP, 1959), a classic in its field. Cowan, who is Roman Catholic, taught for over 50 years at the University of Dallas, where she was Chair of the English Department, Dean of Graduate Studies, and University Professor. She also founded and directed the university’s Institute for Philosophic Studies. Cowan is the author of numerous scholarly studies of American and other literature. Together with her husband, Donald Cowan, President of the University of Dallas from 1962 until 1977, she founded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. In conjunction with the Dallas Institute, she also founded a Teachers Academy for public school teachers, which the National Endowment for the Humanities has designated as a “model for the nation.” Cowan has continued to teach and lecture into her tenth decade.
Books: The Fugitive Group (Louisiana State UP, 1959); The Southern Critics (University of Dallas Press, 1971); Classic Texts and the Nature of Authority, co-author (Dallas Institute of Humanities & Culture, 1993); Invitation to the Classics, co-author (Baker Books, 1998)
William Lane Craig (b. 1949)
Craig was born in East Peoria, Illinois. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College, and two master’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He studied under John Hicks at the University of Birmingham, UK, where he received a PhD in philosophy in 1977, and with Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich, where he received a doctorate in theology in 1984. He has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Westmont College, and the University of Louvain, Belgium. He is currently Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, in California. Craig, who is a Baptist, is a prolific author, having written or edited some 30 scholarly and popular books. He has made influential contributions to several areas of contemporary philosophy of religion, the best-known of which is undoubtedly his revival of the Kalām Cosmological Argument. He maintains a busy schedule of lecturing and debating on college campuses and in other public forums around the world. In 2011, Craig made headlines when Richard Dawkins refused to appear at a debate with him at the University of Oxford to which both had been invited.
Books: The Kalām Cosmological Argument (Macmillan, 1979); Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, co-author (Oxford UP, 1993); Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Crossway, 2001); Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Crossway, 2008)
Jean Bethke Elshtain (b. 1941)
Elshtain was raised in the village of Timnath, in northern Colorado. She received her bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University, and master’s degrees in history from the University of Colorado and the University of Wisconsin. In 1973, she received her PhD in political science from Brandeis University. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University, and has been a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale. She is currently the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, as well as an Associate Scholar with the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs. Elshtain, who is a Protestant, has published more than 20 scholarly books on political ethics. She has focused on issues regarding gender roles in politics, just war theory, and relations between religion and state. Since 2001, she has been an outspoken supporter of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, she delivered the Gifford Lectures, which were subsequently published as Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. Since 2008, she has been a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Elshtain is also a contributing editor for The New Republic.
Books: Public Man, Private Woman (Princeton UP, 1981); Democracy on Trial (Basic Books, 1984); Augustine and the Limits of Politics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996); Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2003); Sovereignty: God, State, and Self(Basic Books, 2008)
David Gelernter (b. 1955)
Gelernter received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1976, and his PhD from SUNY Stony Brook in 1982. That same year, he joined the faculty of Yale University, where he is a Professor of Computer Science. In 1983, his Linda program introduced the concept of “tuple spaces,” which were a seminal contribution to the development of parallel distributed processing architectures, and are the basis of many computer-communication and distributed-programming systems worldwide. Gelernter, who is Jewish, described this breakthrough in his book, Mirror Worlds (Oxford UP, 1991), which also predicted many features of the World Wide Web. Altogether, he has published some dozen technical and non-technical books, the latter on subjects ranging from technology, to cultural and political criticism, to art criticism and aesthetics, to Judaism. He has also published a memoir—Drawing Life (Simon & Schuster, 1997)—and a well-received novel—1939: The Lost World of the Fair (HarperCollins, 1997). In 1993, he was critically injured by a mail bomb sent to him by Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber.” Gelernter is a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard, as well as an accomplished painter.
Books: Mirror Worlds (Oxford UP, 1991); The Muse in the Machine (Free Press, 2002);Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale UP, 2009); Ameri-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (Encounter Books, 2012)

Monday, June 22, 2015

William Lane Craig and Me

I don't know how I missed this but I have just discovered that two years ago something that I wrote in the Huffington Post was discussed in a Podcast by Professor William Lane Craig.  Dr. Craig is an actual philosopher and one that atheist writer Sam Harris once said "seems to put the 'fear of God' into his fellow atheists." He has debated the whole gauntlet of the "new atheists" though Richard Dawkins famously chickened out of his debate with him at Oxford.  He is, in my estimation, a very impressive thinker and that he saw fit to discuss (for 20 min!) something associated with me is quite astounding.

In any event, if you have any interest in the Cosmological Argument for God's existence you might enjoy giving this a listen: A Rabbi Looks at the Kalam Argument.

Most of the information in the piece came from the writing of Theological Philosopher Edward Feser so at best I can only take credit for having understood what he said, but still.  You can see the original article here.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jerry Coyne: Too Atheist For the Atheists

I happen to have the "distinction" of having been attacked by University of Chicago Biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne on his "Why Evolution Is True" blog during a kind of 6.5 minutes of fame I had online a few years back. Dr. Coyne is the gold standard of militant atheism and speaks with a fervor and certainty that some might associate with religious "fundamentalism." Once in a while, the atheist community comes to recognize that some of their representatives are so utterly disdainful of anything that smacks of theology and so intolerant of any views that diverge with their own accepted wisdom that they become a tad embarrassed.

Such is the case with the general reaction to Dr. Coyne's latest contribution to humanity - a book called "Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible." Dr. Coyne doesn't believe in free will so I suppose he can't be blamed for writing yet another needlessly judgmental, philosophically unsophisticated and antagonistic work. Then again, since he doesn't believe in free will how could he blame the religious (or anyone really) for holding the views that they do? But Whatever.

Science writer John Horgan has written an interesting piece in Scientific American entitled "Book By Biologist Jerry Coyne Goes Too Far Denouncing Religion, Defending Science."  He also wrote up a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal called "Preaching to the Converted."  Here's a helpful excerpt from that piece:

Coyne’s defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter… He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion’s contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming.
Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. “The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.” Right. Science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.
Naïve readers of Mr. Coyne might conclude that science is rapidly filling in the remaining gaps in our understanding of reality and solving ancient philosophical conundrums. He claims that free will, the notion that “we can choose to behave in different ways,” is being contradicted by research in genetics and neuroscience and “looks increasingly dubious.”
As evidence, he cites scientific revelations that our choices are often influenced by factors of which we are unaware. Yes, Freud told us as much, and Sophocles for that matter. But it is absurd to conclude that all our conscious deliberations are therefore inconsequential…
Mr. Coyne’s critique of free will, far from being based on scientific “fact,” betrays how his hostility toward religion distorts his judgment. Evidence against free will, he says, “kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation.” Mr. Coyne thinks that if religious people believe in free will, it must be an illusion.
Mr. Coyne’s loathing of creationism, similarly, leads him to exaggerate what science can tell us about our cosmic origins. Mr. Coyne asserts that “we are starting to see how the universe could arise from ‘nothing,’ and that our own universe might be only one of many universes that differ in their physical laws.” Actually, cosmologists are more baffled than ever at why there is something rather than nothing… And multiverse theories are about as testable as religious beliefs.
Mr. Coyne repeatedly reminds us that science, unlike religion, promotes self-criticism, but he is remarkably lacking in this virtue himself. He rejects complaints that some modern scientists are guilty of “scientism,” which I would define as excessive trust—faith!—in science. Calling scientism “a grab bag of disparate accusations that are mostly inaccurate or overblown,” Mr. Coyne insists that the term “be dropped.”
Actually, Faith vs. Fact serves as a splendid specimen of scientism. Mr. Coyne disparages not only religion but also other human ways of engaging with reality. The arts, he argues, “cannot ascertain truth or knowledge,” and the humanities do so only to the extent that they emulate the sciences. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.
Well said, and oodles of fodder for future discussion (especially as Horgan then goes on to make some classical theological errors that, as he explains, have informed his religious worldview) but we'll save that for another post.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Religion: Just Some Speculations of Some Ancient Superstitious People

Here's (part of) a comment I received on my last piece:

"Dear Rabbi, Scientific paradoxes are rooted in empirical data. And they may be eventually resolved with more data and improved scientific theories. Theological paradoxes are not rooted in empirical data, not rooted in scientific theory, but instead are rooted in religious dogma and the speculations of ancient superstitious peoples."

Rather than just respond directly I thought it might be instructive to offer a bit of a fuller treatment.

Scientists are biased too

It's obvious to this reader that science is superior to religion.  Science, as he says, is rooted in empirical data.  That, of course, is true, but not necessarily relevant.  As I've written before in many places like here, here and here, scientific "facts" oftentimes have a shelf life and that what is accepted as indisputable fact today becomes tomorrow's phrenology.

Scientists are both significantly more biased than most people think and are getting caught more and more in fraudulent research due, in part, to that fact that they must publish in respected scientific journals to receive grant money, etc.  Very little research outside of the currently established norms makes it to print so that the scientists are essentially coerced into printing what the establishment wants - and not what the empirical evidence suggests.  Have a look at for a few good examples of that.

We could also do a little thought experiment.  What if there was scientific evidence that supported basic theological claims about Creation, God or any other "dogma."  Do you suppose that these scientifically-minded individuals would start keeping kosher or going to mass, etc?  Or is it more presumable that they would ridicule the findings and quickly "debunk" them - no matter thoroughly and professionally the research was conducted?  There is real research, for instance, that supports "Intelligent Design," Near Death Experiences (NDE's) and Bible Codes.  These may or may not be true ideas, but naturally, they are summarily dismissed by the scientific majority as rank quackery while research on topics like fracking, climate change and GMO's are accepted as proven beyond all doubt despite a large body of conflicting evidence.  See for instance.

Science is only a methodology

The Scientific Method is a great tool (when untainted by bias) for improving our understanding of the natural world.  It provides raw information.  However, what that information means and how it may apply to our lives is the realm of philosophy - of which theology is one type.  A scientist's skill in gathering information on a particular topic in no way gives him or her the ability to extrapolate or draw particular conclusions about that information.  As such, both the scientist and the philosopher are making critical contributions towards humanity's general understanding of the nature of reality.

Theology has no Scientific Method in that it deals with ideas of transcendence that are the realm of metaphysics (ie: beyond physics). This is not to suggest that there is no rigor to it or that it can't contribute to our understanding of the physical (or non-physical) world.  Theology helps us to understand that logical inferences can be drawn from our physical world that teach us about the nature of the non-physical - which is by definition non-empirical.  So the suggestion that theology is somehow deficient since it doesn't (and can't possibly) function in the way that science does it simply false - like comparing apples to oranges.  On the contrary, theology is essential for making any sense of what science discovers.

Just Some Speculations?

One might be tempted to ask if there is any empirical evidence to support our reader's supposition that the ancient and the superstitious were merely speculating.  Is that a scientific fact or just an emotional position?  There is an unfortunate phenomenon by which many people hubristically suppose that people who lived long ago were basically stupid.  I wonder, when contemplating the distant future, of these same people pre-regard themselves as uninformed, backwards and ignorant as compared to our future progeny.  I doubt it, but if they do I would think that it would give them some pause.  Judaism tends to take the position that those who lived before us were mentally and spiritually superior - very much unlike most of our contemporaries.  In any event, there was no shortage of geniuses who lived long ago.  True, they did not create the Keurig Machine, but they may have had a pretty firm grasp of various aspects of the nature of reality - perhaps better than we do.

More often than not, people who buy into something tend to regard it as fact, proven, self-evident, etc.  Those that do not think the opposite and tend to be irritated that others can't appreciate the simple and obvious logic of their position.  Aspersions can certainly be cast on either group and as such it seems to me a better starting position would be one of mutual respect and understanding.  Has religion truly contributed nothing to the world?  Just some random speculations?  Fortunately, there are many who can, and do, acknowledge the folly of those sentiments.  Here's my favorite:

“Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

-Paul Johnson

Thank God for all that ancient, superstitious speculation.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Death: the Other Event Horizon

In some ways it would be nice to live in a black and white world - where things could simply be one way or the other. The frustrating reality, however, is that things are often not black and white. Usually, situations, interactions and feelings present a confusing melange of contradictions, in which, given our finite perspectives, we can only see seeming half-truths and incomplete pictures. This makes decision-making tenuous and complex. What is the right course of action in any given scenario? Should we choose peace over truth, look out for our own needs over those of others, be proactive or let things happen on their own? From another angle, are the scientific theories with which we’re familiar fact, debunked or something in-between? It seems to me that there is a Western bias against seeing things as greater than the sum of their parts, but perhaps that’s changing.

A recent science article published by the BBC suggests that, “if you fell into a black hole you might expect to die instantly. But in fact your fate would be far stranger than that.” And strange it is. One might rightly suppose that a region in which spacetime curvature becomes infinite and as such would crush an observer to infinite density would be uniquely, and wholly inhospitable to a human life. Not so, explains science writer Amanda Gefter. Instead, she argues, “the instant you entered into a black hole, reality would split in two. In one, you would be instantly incinerated, and in the other you would plunge on into the black hole utterly unharmed.” What is the lay person to make of such an enigmatic exposition of reality? How could we find such an assertion to be anything other than emotionally unmooring? Nonetheless, there it is: another scientific proposal that mutually exclusive realities can exist concurrently - that the impossible is real.

Jewish theology has long encouraged its adherents to openly embrace paradox. For instance, there’s the problem of God’s foreknowledge of the future vs the Torah’s absolute insistence on free will. Then there’s the even more fundamental problem of how it can be that a finite world such as ours can exist concurrently with an Infinite being? Additionally, there’s the problem of having a text (The Torah) with immutable commandments that exists alongside a human construct (the Talmud) which implies that the majority interpretation of that text governs, no matter how outlandish or deviant from surface meaning. At first blush, like with the new black hole theory, something seems off. These ideas are essentially contradictory. How can they both be true?

Although there is a voluminous amount of literature contemplating these paradoxes, a common response to such questions is that it’s simply not possible, from our vantage point, to gain a full accounting of the true nature of the universe. In the same way that there is no mechanical possibility of ever knowing (in a physical sense) if there are universes outside of our own, so too, to truly understand how the finite and the Infinite can co-exist we would need to have the vantage point of the Infinite Himself - which, clearly, we do not. We cannot imagine a color that does not exist nor a ten-sided circle, or even the true appearance of subatomic particles. As Werner Heisenberg said of the famous wave/duality paradox in physics, “the solution to the difficulty is that the two mental pictures which experiment lead us to form - the one of the particles, the other of the waves - are both incomplete and have only the validity of analogies which are accurate only in limiting cases.”

So, on the one hand, all of this could generate a decent amount of angst. Lack of clarity tends to be disconcerting and the notion that no matter how hard we work, there will always be some (critical) matters of which we will remain incapable of true understanding is highly unsatisfying. On the other hand, it opens up the door to a lot of interesting possibilities. Perhaps this is me, speaking through my theology-colored glasses, but it seems to me that with theories such as the black hole assertion described above, modern physics unwittingly posits evidence for life after death. How so? With the description of the “event horizon” - the point of inevitability - beyond which anything (including light) that crosses cannot return - we have a metaphor for life in general. Death is an inevitability against which, at present, we have no recourse. Yet what if, as is now being posited, when we cross death’s “event horizon,” reality splits "into two?" In one, your body decomposes under six feet of earth; in the other, you are “utterly unharmed.”

Obviously, there are dissimilarities in the two examples. With death, there is no breakdown of the laws of physics due to massive gravitational force and the resulting paradoxical “weirdness” that it seems to suggest. But with science’s new-found embrace of paradox it makes it much more of a plausible notion to suggest that two opposites - life and death - could, somehow, be simultaneously true. Most theological traditions take it as a given that this is indeed the case. The scientific mechanism for this has yet to be discovered but give it time. It can’t be any odder than what is currently being discussed.