The A.I. Problem

Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?

But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.

At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.

Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.

Amoral Logic

How does a utilitarian approach to morality lead to the Golden Rule?

Anyone who studies a little bit of game theory has to believe that “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is, at best, an occasional outcome.

In Judaism, our love of G-d, combined with belief that we are all created in G-d’s image (spiritually if not physically) provides that path. Do we always live by it? No. But the more we live in consistency with our values, the more we are driven to take care of each other.

Utilitarian morality, on the other hand, begins and ends with looking out for Number One. For me, that’s a recipe for dystopia.

Evangelicals, Interfaith Dialogue, and Literalism

Evangelicals Are Losing the Battle for the Bible. And They’re Just Fine with That”
Jim Hinch

The Los Angeles Review of Books
February 15, 2016

While I recognize that this may represent to some of my more frum friends and mentors something of a heresy, I do read religious texts from other faiths. I find doing so essential for two reasons.

First, because any other faith contains an implicit – or in some cases, an explicit – rejection of Jewish belief, I see in those texts an opportunity to hold up a mirror and examine the edifice of Jewish belief and thought. We are our own harshest critics, but we are not the only ones, and being the stiff-necked but self-critical faith that we are, outside perspectives can be essential guides to understanding our own issues.

The second reason is that it helps us to explain Judaism to others in a way that they will understand. For those of us who do not live our lives in the warm embrace of a Torah-based community, interaction with the goyim is a fact of life. When a Jew of even moderate observance comes into contact with a curious atheist or member of another faith, we are often called to explain – or defend – Judaism, and often to explain how and why our beliefs cannot be lumped willy-nilly together with those of other religions. We can only do this when we know those differences.

The question of Biblical literalism is a matter that affects us all. Many fellow Jews whom I admire deeply, not least great modern poseks like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hold fast to the idea that the only history of the world before the arrival of the Tribes in the Promised Land is the one in Torah. I know of other sincere and observant scholars who hold the view that Torah is the moral history of the universe rather than a natural history. Both the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban (Nahmanides) support a non-literalist view of Torah. Nonetheless, the debate continues, and I believe that we are better for it, just as Judaism was strengthened by the constant to-and-from between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

it is, therefore, fascinating to watch Evangelical Christian thinkers move beyond the theological cul-de-sac of Intelligent Design as a means of reconciling science and faith. Any Jew who struggles with these questions and who lives among the goyim would do well to read Jim Hinch’s fascinating article.

Children and Reason

Perhaps if the late Mr. Hitchens had paid more attention in philosophy class, he would have understood that even the great philosophers acknowledged (and warned their students about) the limits of reason to answer “the really important questions.”

I give Hitchens full credit: he lived, wrote, and died holding high the sword of reason, never wavering in his belief that the ability of the human intellect to comprehend everything with the aid of logic was limitless.

That such a faith in and of itself defied logic and served as a kind of secular religion probably never occurred to him.

Explanation and Meaning

Religion and science are two quite different things and we need them both. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And the pursuit of explanation — how do things work — and the pursuit of meaning — why am I doing this, why am I here — those are two really fundamental areas of human intelligence and they’re just different.

via A Conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks | February 20, 2015 | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS.

Explanation and meaning. Absolutely brilliant.

Rabbi Sacks is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he is as quotable as Hillel. His great gift to us all is his ability to pithily clarify complex issues without oversimplifying them. Every time I read one of his books, I find myself stopping to think about every two paragraphs.

What a gift.

Leap of Faith

To me, there can be no greater leap of faith than the assumption by scientific fundamentalists that if something cannot be observed by human faculties (even mechanically enhanced) or understood by the human intellect, it simply cannot exist.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

– Hamlet (1.5.167-8)