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.


  1. "Science, as he says, is rooted in empirical data. That, of course, is true, but not necessarily relevant."

    It is very relevant. The point is the paradoxs found in Science are rooted in data, unlike the Paradoxes of Religion.

    "What if there was scientific evidence that supported basic theological claims about Creation, God or any other dogma."

    I truly doubt you have any. An dont tell me Schroeder.

    "There is real research, for instance, that supports "Intelligent Design," Near Death Experiences (NDE's) and Bible Codes. "

    Sorry dear Rabbi. There is no scientific support for any of those three.

    "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."

    It is virtually self evident they were speculating. There is no basis to suppose otherwise. Besides, the onus is on people presenting those ancient beliefs to supply evidence for them.

    "There is an unfortunate phenomenon by which many people hubristically suppose that people who lived long ago were basically stupid."

    Ignorant, not stupid. And virtually all ancient people where superstitious.

    "To them (Jews) we owe the idea of equality before the law"

    As a Rabbi you must know this is false. Must I air our dirty laundry ?

    "of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person"

    As a Rabbi you must know this is false. Must I air our dirty laundry ?

    The Truth id G-d's Seal

    1. "The point is the paradoxs found in Science are rooted in data, unlike the Paradoxes of Religion." It's just a different kind of data as explained - philosophical vs scientific. Your value judgement on their relative merits is subjective and rooted in emotionality, not logic.

      "Sorry dear Rabbi. There is no scientific support for any of those three."

      Yes, dear reader, there is. Right in the links that I provided. To not be aware of this is to not really be in the game. You need to understand the arguments of the other side before you attack them. Here's a little challenge - please explain to me (in your own words) where the flaw in the Harold Gans paper from the Conference on Pattern Recognition is.

      "It is virtually self evident they were speculating. There is no basis to suppose otherwise. "

      Again, to assert that there is "no basis" is to reveal an ignorance of the arguments. There are many cogent arguments put forth. Have a looks at many of the posts in this blog for some examples.

      I have no idea what you mean regarding our "dirty laundry."

      It's interesting that you've twice mentioned the quote from the Talmudic Sages that "God's seal is truth" while you concurrently seem to disparage the essence of what those sages stood for.

    2. Dear Rabbi,

      "Here's a little challenge - please explain to me (in your own words) where the flaw in the Harold Gans paper from the Conference on Pattern Recognition is."

      The original Bible Code article was refuted after a time consuming peer review including by Orthodox Jews. The almost unanimous opinion of those in the scientific world who have studied the question is that the theory is without foundation. I have very little hope any Bible Code paper will withstand peer review.

      The Truth is G-d's Seal

    3. You are simply incorrect. The papers submitted to the Conference of Pattern Recognition were indeed peer reviewed and have not been rebutted in 9 years. Simple fact. So if you love truth so much I'd like to hear you acknowledge it. Let's start with this - you say "I was wrong when I said that the paper did not withstand peer review."

      If you do then there's some point in continuing the discussion and if not, not.

    4. Dear Rabbi,

      Having a paper published for a conference or journal need not require Peer Review. You claim the new Bible Code papers have been peer reviewed. Pray tell me by who ?

      The Trith is G-d's Seal

    5. I don't know the names of the reviewers (do you know the names of reviewers on any experiment)? I could probably find out though.

      Here's the definitive history of codes (1/2) which I think I'll just make into another post soon:

      1. WRR was published in 1994 by Doron Witztum and Eliyahu Rips. It detailed the great rabbis experiment. There were four components to the experiment: (a) the list of rabbi names and appellations (e.g. RAMBAM for Moshe ben Maimon), (b) the list of dates of birth and death for each rabbi, and (c) a mathematical formula which measured the codes effect and a method of computing the probability that the result could be just random. (d) The book of Genesis. The peer reviewers had set the maximum probability that they would accept and publish at 1/1,000. The experiment produced a probability of 1/62,500 and was published in Statistical Science as agreed.

      2. In 1999 Brendan McKay et al published a paper in Statistical Science purporting to show that WRR was a hoax, although they never explicitly use that term. Their argument went as follows:
      (a) They pointed out that the appellations used for the rabbis were obtained from an expert who made a subjective decision individually on which appellations were appropriate for each rabbi based on common usage. Since the decision process was subjective, it was not scientific and was open to being manipulated to ensure the outcome of the experiment that Witztum and Rips desired.
      (b) McKay et al then produced their own great rabbis experiment using exactly the same methodology as WRR, but with their own subjectively chosen appellations. They admit that the appellations were specifically chosen to ensure the success of their "experiment". They ran their experiment on War and Peace, not on Genesis, and obtained a probability very close to that obtained by WRR. This demonstrated that the great rabbis experiment could be faked. Hence, there was no need to accept Witztum and Rips at their word that they did not fake WRR.
      (c) McKay et al also produced circumstantial mathematical evidence that the mathematical formula might have been specifically designed to ensure the success of WRR.

    6. Going to take several posts actually:

      Part II

      3. In August, 2006, seven papers on Torah codes were published in the proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Pattern Recognition, which took place that year in Hong Kong . All of these papers passed peer review before publication. Of particular interest was a paper authored by Gans et al detailing the "cities experiment". The four components of this experiment were completely identical to WRR except that instead of using the rabbi's birth and death dates, Gans used the names of the cities of birth and death. The probability obtained was 1/250,000. Having learned a lesson from the criticism of WRR, this experiment was done without any subjective decisions made to produce the data:
      (a) Since the list of rabbi's names and appellations were exactly as in WRR, no manipulation of this information was possible.
      (b) Since the mathematical formula used to measure the codes effect and the probability were exactly the same as in WRR, no manipulation of this was possible either.
      (c) The only new element of the experiment was which cities the rabbis were born in and died in, and how to spell their names in Hebrew.

    7. Part III

      To avoid any allegation that subjective judgement was used to determine this information, which might be then used to manipulate each city name or spelling so as to ensure the "success" of the experiment, a linguistic protocol was developed by Tzvi Inbal to determine, using two encyclopedias and standard rules of Hebrew spelling, the name and spelling of every city used in the experiment. The protocol was followed exactly without any exceptions for each city. Thus, each individual name or spelling could not be manipulated. If one were to attempt to design the protocol itself so as to fake the experiment, one would not be able to get many of the names and spellings to be what you wanted. You could get some, but not most. (Think of trying to push in an air mattress. You can push it in wherever you want, but then in bulges out somewhere else.) This last fact is extremely important. A little though will convince anyone of the fact that it is impossible to manipulate over a hundred city names and spellings to accomplish a hoax with a single protocol that is used for all. This is explicitly stated in the peer reviewed Gans et al paper. The paper states that because of the use of a single protocol for all the city names and spellings, the experiment cannot be faked. In addition, no one has challenged the protocol as being linguistically incorrect. The paper also explicitly states that the success of the cities experiment proves that WRR was not faked, although, as shown by McKay, it was possible to fake it. this is because had the appellations been designed to work with the dates of birth and death as alleged by the critics, those same appellations would not work with anything else, like the cities. The peer reviewers passed this paper for publication with these two explicit statements in the paper, presumable because they agreed. Had they not agreed, they would have insisted that these statements be taken out.
      It is important to note that the Gans et al paper references the Mckay et al paper as well as McKay's web site, so that the peer reviewers would be well aware of all the criticisms leveled at WRR. In addition, a detailed description of the linguistic protocol, the entire list of cities names, as well as details as to how each and every city name and spelling was obtained by use of the protocol was made available to the peer reviewers (and is still on Robert Haralick's Torah code website).

    8. Part IV

      It is now nine years since the publication of the seven papers in 2006. No one has found and publicized a single error in any of the papers. The critics have been challenged to try to fake the cities experiment. There has been no response except to say that "they did their work already and they have no time to waste on more of the same". This is illogical!

      4. One thing that the critics have done is to do their own "cities experiment" to try to "reproduce" the reported significant results. This was done by a group of people calling themselves "The Gans Committee" (Gans had nothing to do with the committee). The Gans committee "experiment" did not get a significant result. They therefore claimed that they could not reproduce the cities experiment significant result, and therefore the first experiment was flawed.
      (a) To show that the cities experiment is flawed, one must show where the flaw is. No one has ever done this. In fact, the Gans committee experiment was flawed!:
      (b) Instead of using a single protocol for obtaining the city names and spellings, the Gans committee subjectively determined what the name and spelling of each city should be. This goes against their own criticism of WRR, as it means that one can manipulate each city name or spelling to make the experiment appear to succeed or to ensure that the experiment does not succeed.
      (c) A very large numbers of errors were found in the Gans committee list of city names and spellings. In several cases, they quote a reference in an encyclopedia for the name of the city of birth or death of a certain rabbi and the encyclopedia gives a totally different name in the same place they referenced! One of the Gans committee members quit the committee because of this, and published the plethora of errors in their data.
      (d) These "errors" were brought to the attention of the committee. They did not deny the errors but absolutely refused to correct the errors and redo the experiment correctly!
      Clearly, this "experiment" is fatally flawed and one can deduce nothing from it other than the illogical refusal of the committee to correct the data and redo the experiment correctly!

  2. Dear Rabbi;
    I agree that the questions asked of you is somewhat condescending and not phrased well. I also agree that scientists, like other people, are prone to bias and fraud. But fraudulent scientists do not invalidate science any more than fraudulent rabbis invalidate Judaism.

    Science is a way of thinking. It helps to explain things that we observe in nature. It allows for provisional theories to explain things. Science accepts that theories and explanations are fallible and assumes that explanations (theories) will be strengthened, modified or negated depending on evidence.

    Religion on the other hand, and religious thought in general is faith based. The religious accepts the existence of a good god regardless of evidence. The religious thinker attributes certain events to the supernatural no matter what the evidence implies. "God saved me from a car accident" the religious thinker would say, and there is no amount of evidence to the contrary would sway him from this thought. The scientist would say "what evidence you have that it was God who saved you" and the religious man would say "I don't need evidence, I just believe!".

    1. I agree with your first two paragraphs. I disagree, however, with your depiction of the religious thinker. The notion of a good God is a philosophically logical conclusion - read "The Last Superstition" by Edward Feser for a thorough analysis of why and how that is.

      A Jew would say that not only did God save me from the car accident but that God also almost got me in one. He is the basis of reality itself and is therefore overseeing all aspects of my life. Again, there are cogent arguments to be made in support of this position. So yes, there will not be any physical evidence (the realm of science) to support this (as by the way there is no physical support for love, justice, free-will and many other things that most people assume to be real). There is, however, philosophical (metaphysical) evidence.

      The religious Jew would not say "I just believe" without evidence. We have no notion of blind faith.

  3. Dear Rabbi,

    It is only fair that all my comments be published otherwise you will be misleading other people who may be reading our conversation. Also, I have no desire having a discussion with someone who does not display my comments.If your position is so strong - what are you afraid of ? Or is it you realize there are kinks in your arguments ?

    The Truth is G-d's Seal

    The Truth is G-d's Seal

    1. I will be happy to publish your additional comments as soon as you acknowledge the point that I've asked you to acknowledge - that you were incorrect in asserting that the papers submitted to the Conference On Pattern Recognition in 2006 had not passed peer review. If you're still holding out on that, here's a link to the conference: Notice on the top left it says "authors area" and "reviewers area." The reviewers are the ones who do the peer review - which btw I've discovered are done double blind so as to avoid bias - so no names are or will be available.

      I think the kinks are in your argument - as you can now clearly see. I think this actually obviates the need for you to post the links that you would like me to but again, I will once you acknowledge a) it was peer reviewed, b) that means that your original contention that there is "no evidence" for this position is false and therefore is likely (at least possibly) true on other matters I've cited and c) that it shows that there could very well be real synergy between science and theology.

  4. I too checked to see if the Gans papers are peer reviewed. Came up with nothing. Please Rabbi, if you know who peer reviewed please tell us who and what they published. Thank You. Maybe that Seal guy is telling the truth.

    1. I spoke to Mr. Gans personally. They were peer reviewed. He doesn't know by who, however, since the process is "double blind" - meaning neither the authors nor the reviewers know who the other is - which is done to prevent bias.

      That "Seal Guy" is so antsy about this only underscores how threatening this is to them.

    2. Thank You. Do we know what the peer review entailed ? For example, the peer reviews of the Rabbi experiment were performed by qualified experts and were pretty in depth. Its that kind of peer review that is important.

    3. I emailed the conference and this is what they said:

      Dear Adam Jacobs,

      Thank you very much for your interest in the conference.
      As per the information on our website all the papers submitted are peer reviewed.

      Best Regards,
      Ana Ramalho
      On behalf of ICPRAM’s Secretariat

      Not sure how much more clear this can be.

  5. All the Torah/Bible codes are interesting puzzles. They involve complex (sometimes novel) statistics, languages, alphabets, Jewish traditions, psychology and even novel pattern recognition algorithms. Therefore it is easy for errors to creep in. There are still too many unknowns for the codes to be used for evidence for anything. For example, many Jewish Rabbi's have Torah names so of course you will find their names with a skip of one. And you will find it often. Then it becomes more likely to find their B'day nearby. I am skeptical until a wide consensus of Statisticians work with other experts to get to a resolution of these puzzles.

  6. Near Death Experiences - Christians often describe it within a Christian paradigm ( Yeshu and luv, angelic ...) and this suggests a persons beliefs may play a role. There are biological, physiological and neurological explanations for NDE. Until more evidence is provided that there was contact with G-D, I remain skeptical. Perhaps G-D can really thru a NDE a secret or solution to some medical or scientific issue.

  7. Intelligent Design - Creationism is pseudoscience - and therefore not taught in public schools by fiat. ID poses questions about nature, that often can be explained by evolution. Sometimes scientific knowledge is not advanced enough to respond, but that does not warrant positing an Intelligent Designer. A comprehensive study of biological forms does not suggest top down design but rather modification upon modification billions of years.

    1. And often it can't be explained by evolution - as is more frequently becoming the case.

      In my experience "pseudoscience" is synonymous with "science that I don't agree with or want." Here is a list of dozens of peer-reviewed Intelligent Design publications. These pseudo-scientists sure pull a lot of fast ones on people:

      If you would like to read several specific examples of top down design please see Michael Behe's "The Edge of Evolution."

    2. "We therefore find that Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large." Ruling, Judge John E. Jones III, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

    3. A study by Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit states: "Dembski's work is riddled with inconsistencies, equivocation, flawed use of mathematics, poor scholarship, and misrepresentation of others' results."[5] Another objection concerns Dembski's calculation of probabilities. According to Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor of mathematics and evolutionary biology, "We cannot calculate the probability that an eye came about. We don't have the information to make the calculation."[6] Critics also reject applying specified complexity to infer design, characterizing this approach as an argument from ignorance. from wiki Specified complexity

    4. The overwhelming scientific consensus is evolution, not ID. Evolution and ID are not compatible. Until the scientific consensus accepts ID , I remain very skeptical of it's merits.

    5. "As the century and with it the millennium come to an end, questions long buried have disinterred themselves and come clattering back to intellectual life, dragging their winding sheets behind them. Just what, for example, is the origin of biological complexity and how is it to be explained? We have no more idea today than Darwin did in 1859, which is to say no idea whatsoever. William Dembski's book is not apt to be the last word on the inference to design, but it will surely be the first. It is a fine contribution to analysis, clear, sober, informed, mathematically sophisticated and modest. Those who agree with its point of view will read it with pleasure, and those who do not, will ignore it at their peril."

      David Berlinski, mathematician,
      author of The Tour of the Calculus

    6. The Behe book that I referenced has nothing to do with the Dover controversy or irreducible complexity (which by the way you should hear the other side of in Steven Meyer's The Signature in the Cell). Read both and then respond.

  8. ID is pseudoscience - you may find this article by an eminent scientist helpful

    1. And you may find this one "helpful."

      Please explain what "pseudoscience" means when dozens of papers on it have been published in leading scientific journals.

  9. I will take your word that ID has been published in 'scientific' journals - that does not make it science. The courts in the USA have ruled ID-Creationism is not science and may not be taught in public schools. Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice which is incorrectly presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.

    1. What science is or is not has been a matter of historical debate and is somewhat subjective as Stephen Meyer outlines here: The US legal system is not a good arbiter of the matter, however.