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)

Science is Becoming a Religion

Those of you who do not yet see science drifting inexorably into the realm of religion need to clear their minds of prejudice and read this brilliant essay (“Hawking contra Philosophy“) by Christopher Norris in Philosophy Now.

Norris takes on Stephen Hawking’s recent writings in particular, but in so doing points up a growing – and disturbing – tendency for science to become as much about credo as it is ego obseruo.

Church, State, and Faith in Education

I think we all can agree that there should be a separation of church and state. Where we might have a divergence of opinion is in someone – including the state – telling me what I can or cannot teach my child.

The community, via the state, can tell me that my child must learn about evolution in school. It cannot tell me what I can and cannot teach him in the privacy of our home or in the confines of our house of worship. While I am not a constitutional lawyer, it seems reasonable to me that trying to enforce such a restriction would be an outright violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

For the record, some of the best discussions we have in our house are about the apparent contradictions between Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the common English translations of Genesis, and how Jewish scholars (starting with Maimonedes) reconcile the two. But that’s another topic.

Logic and Truth

In the course of an absolutely stunning deconstruction of Ayn Rand libertarianism, the Nation strikes a bone-deep blow to the corpus of several schools of ethics, not least utilitarianism, that contend that logic and reason are adequate paths to a functioning moral code. (Emphasis mine)

Rand also liked to cite Aristotle’s law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand “A is A”—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state. That particular transport sent Rand’s admirers into rapture and drove her critics, even the friendliest, to distraction. Several months before his death in 2002, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the most analytically sophisticated of twentieth-century libertarians, said that “the use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic…is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.” In 1961 Sidney Hook wrote in the New York Times,

Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth…. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

It goes without saying that this is also a gutting indictment of Objectivism.

Scientists and Scripture

Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science by Nathan Aviezer, Klav Publishing, November 30, 2002

Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible by Gerald Schroder, Bantam, November 30, 1991

I trust science and believe in (and trust) God, and the more I look around the more I find that I am not alone. Applied physicist Gerald Schroeder out of MIT and solid state physicist Nathan Aviezer from the University of Chicago (both now in Jerusalem) are two examples of observant Jewish scientists who feel the same way.

Each man explores the issues at the intersection of faith and science, taking a physicists’ look at what he sees are the essential compatibilities of the evolutionary narrative and the account of creation provided in the Torah. The cases they make are thought provoking, but will undoubtedly pose issues for both atheists and biblical literalists. Atheists will see their efforts as rationalizations after-the-fact, more elegantly and persuasively argued than the case for Intelligent Design, perhaps, but in the end no more convincing to skeptics. For their part, observant Jews and literalist scholars are likely to take issue with how both scientists reject the idea that the account in Genesis as literal history.

Yet I approach their efforts a bit differently. I believe that there is an answer to the apparent conflict between the scientific and scriptural accounts that legitimizes them both, and I see both Schroeder and Aviezar as laying the foundations for a theoretical and scholarly exploration of where that link might be. They are, like good scientists, putting forth hypotheses and rationales to support them. They are not declaring quod era demonstratum, but they are going beyond mere credo.

The open-minded among atheist, agnostics, and the faithful would do well to read through the explorations of these scientists. They provide a valuable starting point that, if nothing else, lays the groundwork to prevent extremists of both sides taking control of the agenda.

A Thought with which to Start the Year

“It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

Torah, Science, and the Sanhedrin

“The members of the Sanhedrin were commanded not to let any science, whether real, imagined, or conventional, escape their knowledge. This included forms of magic and languages. How was it possible to find at all times seventy scholars of this level, unless learning was common among the people? If one elder died, another of the same stamp succeeded him. It could not be otherwise, as all branches of science are required for the application of Torah law.”

The Kuzari

Richard Dawkins Suggests the Fairy Tales are Harmful to Kids, then Recants

Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’
Ian Johnston
The Independent
5 June 2014

At some point, Richard Dawkins is going to reveal a viewpoint that is itself so pernicious, so inhumane, and so extreme that all but his most ardent supporters will be embarrassed. I suspect this most recent revelation of the eminent evolutionary biologist’s heartfelt prejudices is a step toward that point.

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

He apparently confronted such a backlash in the wake of his remarks (at a science conference, no less) that he felt compelled later to “clarify” them on Twitter. He seems to have discovered that in taking on the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Monkey King, he is losing the plot of his own book, and perhaps a few readers he respects.

I think that Dr. Dawkins misses an even larger point. When we tell children fairy tales that include the supernatural, we do not cause them to recoil from science and discovery. Rather, we awaken them to the understanding that there are still things out there that we do not understand, things that are possible but unproven, and that themselves provide a motive to explore, to discover, to find the unfound. Is that not, after all, what a scientist does? Do we not risk reducing science to sawdust in the mouths of our children if we do not provoke them with wonder and curiosity about the unknown and undiscovered? How in the name of anything Dawkins holds sacred does that serve humanity?

I do not think that Dr. Dawkins is an evil man. I think that he is sincere in his belief that his arguments are made for the betterment of the world. It is possible, however, that in the twilight of his career the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion is frustrated that despite his best efforts, so many intelligent, thinking people continue to entertain the possibility of God, of the supernatural, of magic, and that this frustration is bubbling to the surface.

I wish him peace and happiness, hope he continues his work, and in return ask that he and his followers allow the rest of us to live our lives, teach our children, and read to our families as we see fit.

Philosophy, Science, and Big Questions

Philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci of Scientia Salon takes Neil DeGrasse Tyson to task for deriding the value of modern philosophy to science, and for suggesting that philosophy has contributed nothing to natural science since the 1920s.

I disagree with Tyson on many things, but I must agree with him here: the academic direction philosophy today does not meaningfully answer questions about the natural world. Yet perhaps unlike Tyson, I continue to believe that philosophy – of which faith could be considered a subset – remains relevant in the scientific world, and the philosophical questions posed by advances in science are ill-addressed by science itself.

The scientific method is a magnificent tool for describing what, how, where and when, for example, but it comes up short as a source for ethics, morality, or the meaning of life. Science can show us how we can clone a human, but it ill-equipped to tell us whether we should or not; science can build a bomb, but it cannot tell us where and whether to use it; and science can explain the nutritional value of a calf, but it cannot help us decide whether or not it is right to eat veal.

It disappoints me that someone as intelligent as Tyson – or Stephen Hawking, for that matter – cannot see that science and philosophy are complimentary pursuits that each address their own realms. There are questions that science cannot answer, and there are questions that philosophy cannot answer. That modern philosophy has become dominated by intellectual auto-eroticists does not lessen the value of philosophy as a human pursuit: it merely suggests that philosophy took a wrong turn at some point, and needs to back up a bit and start again.

Why Judaism is an Environmentalist Faith

One issue I keep coming across in my discussions with atheists is the persistent misconception that religion promotes the idea that the Earth is man’s to do with whatever he pleases.

I do not attempt to speak for other faiths, or even for all Jews, but I explain that at its core Judaism is about Tikkun Olam, the betterment of the world in partnership with Hashem. The usual reaction I get from the more polite folks is arched-eyebrow skepticism. “I am sure that is how you read it, but does everyone?”

Jonathan Helfand offers superb documentation of where Judaism stands on the environment in a paper published in Martin D. Yaffe’s Judaism and Environmental Ethicsa 2002 compendium of writings on the topic. Helfand’s paper, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Judaism and Environmental Ethics,” presents what he calls a “Jewish Theology of the Environment,” drawn from Halacha, Aggadah, and Tefilah.

He starts out by summarizing the line of thinking that environmentalists follow to condemn Abrahamic religion, originally posited by Arnold Toynbee in the pages of the New York Times in 1973:

The doctrine that placed one God above nature removed the restraints placed on primitive man by his belief that the environment itself was divine. Monotheistic man’s impulses were no longer restrained by a pious worship of nature, and the God of Genesis told man to subdue and master the earth, proclaiming man’s dominion over the natural world.

Again, speaking only for Judaism, Helfand refutes the point in a comprehensive essay that establishes that not only did Hashem not give the world to man for his own, but that He enlisted man as a partner in its preservation even as man was provided its fruits for sustainment.

He also explains why we are required to protect the environment, use care with endangered species, and to serve as stewards of the world. In short, Helfand explains that the concept of sustainability is rooted deeply in Torah. He concludes:

While nature has indeed been, to use Weber’s term, “disenchanted” by the biblical creation epic, it is wrong to conclude that by releasing man from primitive constraints monotheism has given him license or incentive to destroy. In the Jewish tradition nature may be disenchanted, but never “despiritualized.” For Judaism nature serves as a guide and inspiration. “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,” cries out the Psalmist as he views the heaven and earth and the wonders of creation. “How great are Thy works, 0 Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your possessions” (Psalm 104:1, 24).

I love that: Judaism may have disenchanted nature, but it never despiritualized it. On the contrary, Judaism has given the world a framework that enables us to respect and preserve nature without having to worship it.

Naturally, this is a learned essay in an academic publication, not the ruling of a posek. Nonetheless, it provides a foundation for others to use as a guide or a resource when seeking to do so.

Finally, one of the things I love about this article is that it is a demonstration of the value of the oral Torah and the Aggadah, and the importance of using great care when interpreting Torah. If an environmentalist can dig into Genesis and find justification for despoiling the Earth, so could a well-intentioned Jew who proceeds without the guidance of the sages.

I keep this article in Evernote now, making sure it is handy for my next debate with an environmentalist.

Naziism Was Not Christian

For those antithesits out there who would assert that Naziism was a religious movement or a movement of religion, a thought from an esteemed scholar of religion.

“In speaking of the Christian world, we use two different terms: ‘Christianity,’ meaning the religion in the strictest sense, a system of belief and worship and some ecclesiastical organization; and we use a different word, ‘Christendom,’ meaning the whole civilization, which grew up under the aegis of that religion, which is in many ways shaped by that religion, but which nevertheless contains elements that are not part of that religion, or may even be hostile or contrary to that religion.

Let me illustrate that with a simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity, but no one could seriously deny that that they came out of Christendom.”

— Bernard Lewis

 

Can an Atheist be a Ger Tzaddik?

There are good theists, and there are evil theists. There are good atheists and anti-theists, and there are bad atheists and anti-theists.

What we should be focused on is NOT whether I can prove to Richard Dawkins in terms he will accept is whether God exists. I have enough proof for me and that should be enough for all of us to allow me to continue believing what I believe.

Better we should be having the more important debate – which Pope Francis appears to be trying to set up – which is “what does it mean to be good, and why?”

As for we of the Hebrew persuasion, we should ask – is there room within the construct of the Noahide Laws for an atheist to be a ger tzaddik, or at least a righteous non-believer? And if not, do we simply accept atheists and even anti-theists as one of the nations provided they don’t come after us?

As our theistic world is compelling non-believers to adhere to modes of belief that explicitly exclude God, how are we to address those who not only disregard our beliefs, but who (as in the case of Sam Harris) regard them as amoral and anti-intellectual?

Is Moderate, Rational Atheism a Fallacy?

English: Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins after ...

English: Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins after Maher’s talk at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Burbank, CA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An erudite atheist friend said recently that every atheist he knew personally, as many as a couple of hundred, and (he contended) all of the Big Name atheists:

“..have said, explicitly, that to the limited extent I outlined above (‘there may, against all the evidence so far, be a god’) they are agnostic. There is zero conflict in this position if you claim to be an evidence-based rational thinker (which most, but not all, atheists will claim).”

It was an interesting claim.

Now, while I would love to test that statement against all of the Big Name Atheists, I thought I would try it for one, possibly the biggest name, Richard Dawkins. At best, he is conflicted. While he has been frequently quoted as saying “There probably is no God,” thus sounding intellectually honest, on at least one occasion in public he has said ““You are utterly wasting your time – all of you who are indignant at being attacked about your god – because there is no god.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of intellectual honesty to which my friend alludes: it sounds like a statement of absolute faith, or at best a vacillation between two positions, one agnostic and quite acceptable in polite company, and one anti-theist, and steeped in faith.

The atheist might retort that God does not exist because his existence has not been proven. My response to that atheist is simple: we all have our standards of proof. God has met mine, he just hasn’t met yours yet.

Chill, folks

Earlier (in 2007), Newsweek religion columnist Marc Gellman confessed that atheists had lately befuddled him: “What I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry,” Gellman lamented. “I just don’t get it.”

via The Dennis Prager Show.

You have your beliefs, I have mine. This country is about “live and let live.” I won’t force my beliefs on you, but let me practice them.

It is just this simple

“The frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance. Question: Isn’t the real truth that they are intolerant of religion?”

– Ronald Reagan, August 23, 1984

There is no more excuse for irreligious intolerance than there is for religious intolerance.

I’m willing to say “live and let live.”

Are you?

A Thoughtful Point on Atheism

Furthermore, to say that religion is evil because religious people have committed heinous acts in the name of religion is like saying medicine is evil because Dr. Josef Mengele committed heinous acts against the subjects of his Auschwitz experiments in the name of medical research. One can take any constructive enterprise and use it for destructive purposes. This offers no grounds for condemning the enterprise itself.

via The Atheist Crusade.

I would not condemn an atheist or secularist because of the acts of Josef Stalin. Why is it that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would condemn my faith for the acts of a totally unrelated fanatic?

A Final Thought on the Late Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer was no great fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, primarily because the correspondent, journalist, and author made it his quest in his last years to give eloquent defense to secularism. It was sad to me that someone with so much to say – and such talent to say it – should place that talent in service of a cause so unlikely to improve the lot of man.

Yet while I felt his evangelical atheism wrongheaded and a tad hypocritical (though not nearly to the degree of Richard Dawkins‘ deicidal mania), even those of us who disagreed with him have to grudgingly admire his passion, eloquence, and doggedness in pursuit of his own beliefs.

As we continue the Great Debate, perhaps it is permissible to pause and suggest that Hitchens’ voice booming from the other side of the table will be sorely missed. There is nothing in the world better for the thoughtful man of faith than a thoughtful man who disbelieves, and my own religious growth will be the lesser for the loss of a fine advocate for the other side.

Though you might resent this, G-d bless, Mr. Hitchens, and G-dspeed.