Proof that Humans Exist

If the religious community has focused more on proofs for the existence of G-d than for the existence of mankind, it is only because the former is denied far more directly than the the latter. We are told all the time to doubt the existence of human beings, but in subtler language. The question is not whether fuzzy bipeds walk the earth, speaking to each other, playing baseball, writing books, etc. The question is whether they’re human, that is, essentially distinct from all other beings. The voices ring out with a resounding No!: “A human being is just an ape plus details.” “A human being is just an artificial intelligence minus details.” “A human being is like any other localized set of particles plus (illusory?) details.”*

It is not (just) a particular disdain for human beings that motivates these arguments. We can hardly blame the contemporary thinker for denying human beings in particular if he denies all non-reductive essences in general; in fairness, he also says a frog is something else plus details, water is just two other things combination, and so on. The denial of human beings per se is just the subset of denying anything per se, of denying anything has essential characteristics making it what it is. This is, in most cases, called nominalism and may or may not be the scourge of modernity.

Whether there’s a particular ire for humanity or merely no apparent reason to exclude them from the illusory appearance of essences, the result is the same. In essence, the human being is a concept that needs defense, demonstration, proof. It would be extremely helpful to discover or rediscover arguments that point to something like the “essential nature” of the human being, something very much akin to a soul, as we shall see. Such an argument would preferably be logically sound, easily-conveyed, and rooted in easily-acceptable premises.

One such argument is dropped like a bomb in a short paragraph by David Berlinski on p.116 of his outstanding collection of essays, Human Nature:

A simple modal argument is sometimes of use in this argument; and if not of use, then carelessly neglected. If human beings are largely insignificant in the cosmos, then surely they are not necessary either. Krauss says as much explicitly. “You could get rid of us and all the galaxies and everything we see in the universe and it will be largely the same.” But if human beings are not necessary to the universe, then it follows that the universe is not sufficient for human beings. If ∼(∼Q⊃∼P) then ∼(P⊃Q). If this is so, anything that might reasonably be called a naturalistic explanation for the emergence of human life is beside the point. There could not be any such thing.

This “carelessly neglected” line of reasoning is directed toward those who would offer a “naturalistic explanation for the emergence of human life.” That is, it speaks to those who view humanity as something like a cosmic accident, a meaningless complication thrown out by impersonal universal forces for some infinitesimally short slice of time, preceded (in time or in importance) by eons and likely followed by infinity. This view is a subset of those who deny humanity per se; in this case, the human being is reduced to forces of nature plus details.

This sort of naturalist inevitably believes that human beings are not necessary to the universe. After all, if human beings were necessary, a built-in outcome of all those universal forces, then the forces would not be impersonal at all, but rather inherently geared toward producing not just life, but human life! They could do nothing else but result in human beings; humanity was baked into the universe from the beginning!

No, per the naturalist, human beings must be unnecessary, or merely possible, to the universe. The difference between being necessary to a prior state of affairs and being merely possible to it can be illustrated by two different recipes for cake. The baker for whom the cake is necessary to the recipe writes the following:

Chocolate Cake Recipe:
1 x Chocolate Cake

There is no outcome from these ingredients other than cake, and no other ingredients are required to produce the cake as an outcome. These ingredients inevitably yield cake, to the extent that the baker doesn’t even have to do anything. If we have the ingredients, we actually already have cake, just as when humans are necessary to the universe, they already exist in a certain sense from the moment time begins; we are truly inevitable.

The naturalist baker views the human cake as having a recipe more like:

Chocolate Cake Recipe:
2 x Eggs
4 Tbsp. Baking Chocolate
2 Cups Flour

None of these ingredients on their own is cake, and on the contrary, they must come together in a specific way under specific conditions (e.g., mixed together and then baked in a pan at 350 °) to yield cake as their outcome. The cake is not a necessary result of this recipe; if we forget the eggs or fail to mix the ingredients properly or don’t place them in a warm enough oven, there will be no cake. The naturalist claims, at the very least, that the ‘starting ingredients’ of the universe (e.g., matter, energy, forces) necessitate no human beings, that human beings could have or could not have existed just as easily as far as those starting ingredients care.

In truth, the naturalist claims the ingredients are not even ingredients except in retrospect when they happen to have created a cake. Ingredients imply that there is a purposive process intended to produce a certain result. The naturalist, as explained above, won’t have it. To them, the ordering “recipe” is an imposition of the human mind rather than an expression of qualities inherent to the ingredients. But to make this claim of purposelessness, one must already have concluded that human beings are not necessary to the universe, or in other words, that it could have turned out differently, with no human beings emerging on the scene at all.

Berlinski then makes a rather straightforward argument: If human beings are not necessary to the universe, then the universe is insufficient to produce human beings. In the language of our metaphor, if the resultant cake is not necessary to the second cake recipe, then the ingredients of the recipe are not sufficient to produce the cake.

In other words, the first recipe plus nothing equals its result. The second recipe, however, being a normal recipe, requires additional things to produce the result.** The ingredients alone are insufficient to produce the cake because if they alone were sufficient, we would have the cake already! Since we do not necessarily have the cake just because we have the ingredients, the ingredients are not enough to produce the cake on their own (without mixing, baking, etc.).

This leaves our friend the naturalist in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, the naturalist cannot say that human beings are necessary to the universe, like the first recipe, because that would imply human beings are as important as the entire universe; after all, the universe must produce humankind the way the first recipe must produce a cake. On the other hand, the naturalist cannot say that human beings are not necessary to the universe, like the second recipe, because that would imply the universe is insufficient to produce humankind, that the universe needs mysterious outside help to create a human being. Either we are a totally predetermined inherent reality to the universe, or the universe alone cannot create us at all.***

The naturalist’s description of us as insignificant accidents of nature seems, well, half-baked.

 

While Berlinski has not demonstrated the human essence or soul, exactly, he has given us a nudge in the right direction. He shows that understanding the recipe for a thing tells us a lot about it. When we say ‘recipe,’ we mean not only the material components but what it means for something to have a recipe, what it means for something to have a necessary or unnecessary effect, for its components to be sufficient or insufficient grounds.

As my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Kaufmann, points out, a similar argument to Berlinski’s is found in the Discourses of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Lubavitch. This argument does speak directly to the human essence and the human soul. It is found in Torah Ohr, Bereishis, Hosafos p.434, and in Sefer HaChakira, p.63, and it starts like this:

In Midrash Rabbah, Parshas Bereishis, ch. 8, on the words (Genesis 5:2), “male and female He created them”:

Rabbi Yehoshua bar Nechemya says in the name of Rabbi Chanina bar Yitzchak, and the Rabbanan say in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: G-d created in humankind four qualities from above and four qualities from below. They eat and drink like an animal, reproduce and multiply like an animal, leave waste like an animal, and die like an animal. From above: They stand like attending angels, speak like attending angels, have knowledge like attending angels, and see [both to the front and to the sides] like attending angels.

In my opinion, we learn from this a demonstration of the soul’s persistence [after the body’s death], for Maimonides writes in his Guide for the Perplexed, pt. II, ch. 1, in the second argument, that when we see the composite of two components, and then we also discover one of these components alone, then certainly the other component exists on its own. For example, there is a honey/vinegar mixture, and when we know that honey also exists without vinegar, we may deduce from seeing honey alone that the mixture of honey and vinegar is not necessary. And therefore, we know that vinegar exists apart from honey. Even if we’ve never seen pure honeyless vinegar, we know it exists from the fact that we’ve seen honey alone.

What happens if we buy a cake made of eggs, flour, and chocolate, then later see eggs by themselves, without the other ingredients? This would prove to us, beyond a doubt, that our cake is not made with the first type of recipe mentioned above. The recipe for cake is not simply cake. Rather, it’s made with the second type of recipe. By seeing that eggs can exist on their own, we show that the cake is an unnecessary composite. If the recipe for cake is just cake, its ingredients always come together; you will never find an ingredient apart from the whole. Since we’ve discovered the eggs on their own, the cake’s ingredients must come together only sometimes, but not always. And if they don’t always come together, that means there must be chocolate out there, too. Even if I’ve only ever seen a cake and the eggs that are one of its ingredients, I know that these ingredients don’t always occur together, and so, at least sometimes, chocolate must exist without eggs.

So, if we knew that a human being was just such an unnecessary composite, we would know that a human being’s component parts must, at least sometimes, occur independently of one another.

Continues the Tzemach Tzedek:

So, too, in man, do we see a composite of animal and human life. Man has four qualities, as the Midrash describes, that are just like an animal’s, and four additional qualities that animals have not at all. This means man is a composite of the animal and the human. Even though the animal in man is more refined, it is still literally like that of an animal and equal to an animal in the four traits mentioned above. It is just that man has an additional four traits from above, knowledge and the faculty of speech, etc. And since we find the four animal traits in animals without the higher traits, from this we can judge the four traits from “above” to also exist on their own, without animal aspects.

That is, the “animal” [in man must be just] the physical body of flesh and blood receiving life, and therefore say that the four aforementioned heavenly traits of knowledge, speech, etc., exist without a physical body in abstract intelligences [e.g., angels]. And this is demonstrated through the above demonstration. And now, since the soul of man contains aspects from intelligences abstracted from matter, even if the animal soul does not persist [after the destruction of its physical matter], the human soul certainly does.

And even though we believe in this according to the Torah without any philosophical investigation or [need for] human intellect, as the verse says (Shmuel 25:29), “the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life” and (Zecharia 3:7), “I will permit you to move about,” nevertheless, nothing is lost by supporting it with this demonstration as well. And even though the philosophers bring other demonstrations for the soul’s persistence, this demonstration is supported by the above Midrash.

The Ephodi and ReSheT question our principle and say we indeed to find composites and one of their components alone without discovering the other component alone. [For example, a] man contained both life and speech, and life is found without speech, but speech is never found without life.

But according to what was said above in the name of the Midrash, on the contrary, this is proof for our point. Speech is found in man from above, i.e., in speech, he is like the attending angels, and it is about this that the verse says, “man is created in the image of G-d.” And if so, speech is found apart from life, that is, apart from bodily life, in the abstract intelligences.****

The human being is made of multiple components, multiple ingredients. These components do not exist as a necessary composite; that is, they can exist apart from each other, just as the eggs can exist apart from the cake. Just as man eats and drinks, for example, so does an animal. This shows that the various faculties of the human being do not have to coincide. But if the human being is not a necessary composite, this means that those aspects of man which do not occur in animals, like his abstract intellect or his ability to speak, must occur separately from the animal faculties of man as well. If the egg exists in a pure form unmixed with any other ingredient, so much the chocolate.

Not only are we either necessary to the universe or beyond its sufficiency, as Berlinski would have it. We are also human beings. We are not an ape plus details, or an artificial intelligence minus details, or any other being plus or minus a few incidental traits. All of these beings’ traits are bodily. In us, bodily traits exist in addition to unique human traits. Since the composite is not a necessary one, our unique human traits also must exist alone, apart from any bodily traits, persisting beyond (chronologically and spiritually) our body, the way a piece of chocolate persists beyond a chocolate cake.

This persistent collection of human traits constitutes human life and human identity, and may comfortably be called the human soul. If we have not found G-d, we have at least found ourselves. And that is a large part of finding G-d as well, if our holy teachers are to be believed.


* It has especially been the role of Darwinism to displace this essential distinction; other modern philosophies like transhumanism have merely rushed to fill the gap left by evolution’s assertion that species are infinitely malleable. This is what Darwin means when he writes (quoted in Berlinski p.109), “[W]e will have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” Since species can change into other species by a series of piecewise steps, the species themselves cannot be essentially fixed. Each species becomes like a genus, that is, a group of species. Philosophically, there is nothing below the genera in this system, which to this essentialist sounds almost like an infinite regress, a tower built on air, a bunch of zeros summed to produce not just one but all known numbers. Darwin, of course, did not invent the philosophical aspects of evolution in his theory; earlier, more coherent versions trace all the way back to the essentialist Plato. His influential theory of forms implies an order of being such that differentiating essences may be appended to shared common denominators. Aristotle’s definition of man as the ‘rational’ animal is a prime example. To him, animality is a true shared essence and rationality the distinguishing factor, such that man and animal are metaphysically “related.” The Talmud (in law) and Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah (in metaphysics) repeatedly deny this ‘accretion of forms,’ particularly due to their commitment to creation ex nihilo.

**In fact, this is what makes the second recipe a normal recipe; “normal” for finite beings like us means “something from something,” the creation of a new thing by multiple parties in agreement. When G-d makes the universe ex nihilo, from nothing, He does so as the sole party to the creation (and He does not and cannot count as a “something,” hence, “from nothing”). He says, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and what was the cause? G-d alone. Nothing in our reality works like this; when we make something, it is by actualizing an already-existent potential, by attaching form to matter. Thus, there can, in principle, be no recipe (in the cookbooks of the finite universe) with only a single ingredient and no further instructions; this is not a “recipe” but just a food ready to eat. When we say G-d creates ex nihilo, then, we are saying He creates with no ingredients and no process. It is not just impossible for us to understand because we’ve never seen it, but impossible to understand in principle; there is no answer to the questions of “how” or “by what process” or “by what means” or “on what basis.” Creation ex nihilo is, by human standards, very not-normal.

***There is a third option, which is that the universe does not necessitate human beings but rather wills human beings to exist. Will has the advantage of being free, rather than necessary, and so ‘the universe’ can be sufficient to produce humankind without having to do so. For some reason, naturalists don’t seem comfortable saying an infinite intelligence willed humanity into being. If I had to predict, I’d say they’re far more likely to take the first option, that human beings are necessary to the universe, and downplay this concession by saying everything else in the universe is necessary to it, too. But this merely elevates all creatures to a position of literal cosmic significance, rather than returning humanity to the desired(?) position of insignificance.

****The conclusion of the discourse, moved to this footnote so as not to confuse the reader, is as follows:

And this that they ask based upon essence and accident, the ReSheT already answers there, that accident is not its own existence and exists only with an essence. Thus, it is not true that when you find the essence without the accident, you will also find the accident without the essence.

An example of this question and answer in the ReSheT, as I understand them:

(Q) You say if I run into a composite and one of its parts I will know with certainty that the other parts exist apart from the composite, but that seems to imply if I see a brown cake and then the same cake colored white, that “being brown” exists in a pure state apart from any cake! And this seems absurd.

(A) “Being brown” is the sort of thing that exists only as a quality of another thing, but is not a thing in-and-of-itself; it is an accident, not an essence. Accidents are exceptions to the rule outlined by the Rambam and with which we have learned the persistence of the soul from the Midrash. They cannot, by definition, exist alone, apart from any composite. This is in contrast with speech or eggs or eating, which are substantial.

Four Useful Non-Jewish Ideologies

“The gentile makes gods of stone and we of theories.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Two questions:
(1) Is G-d true?
(2) Is G-d central to human perfection?

Judaism is not any particular combination of answers to these two questions.

If you answer no to both, you are what’s called an atheist. Atheism is the idea that G-d is not there, and that He plays no role in human perfection, which must be defined in terms of the human beings themselves. Atheism, however, is viewed as so contrary to logic that it is rarely mentioned in Judaism. It is, after all, merely an intellectually bankrupt form of idol worship and a spiritually bankrupt form of humanism.

Idol worship (a very common and relatively rational position) says G-d is true but that He is not central to human perfection. That is, there is such a thing as a Most High being, but that Most High being has abandoned the earth (or at least shared it) with lesser powers. G-d made the thunder, but some other being or concept rules it now; whether that concept is electromagnetism or Thor really makes no practical difference. G-d gave us a mind so we could bend these beings and concepts to our will, through sacrifice and understanding, to extend and improve our being. For the idolator, G-d answers a couple of bothersome questions so the real business of life, the navigation of the various finite powers, may begin. Judaism has been anti-idol since Abraham reached (or began to reach) intellectual maturity.

The opposite of idolatry is a dying art called “enlightened humanism” that says it does not matter if G-d is not technically true, since He is the center of a well-ordered life. In the beauty of art or the profound joy and pain of the human experience lies something once rightly called other, sublime, otherworldly. If philosophy cannot prove that these experiences point to an actually existing Infinite Creator, that makes little difference, since so much of our greatest artistic and intellectual endeavors point toward that Creator. Humanism is like the Pantheon in Rome. A beautiful classical structure with a high dome, at the center of which there is a hole, which at the time of its construction demonstrated a wondrous innovation in engineering: The building is no less beautiful, and can continue standing, even if the piece at the top and the center is missing. Judaism, of course, is founded on that center stone having taken us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders.

If you answer yes to both of the above questions, you are what is considered “traditionally religious.” You say that G-d’s Truth and His centrality to the human endeavor are one; G-d is both real, and I exist for Him. I am not sure you have yet discovered Judaism, however. The Rambam (never mind his kabbalistic critics like the Maharal) would tell you that calling G-d “true” is a gross intellectual error, and that all scriptural or rabbinic sources calling Him just that must be understood in the utmost negative abstraction, their names made possible only by revealed prophecy. A human mind landing on some notion called “truth” and then ascribing it to G-d? Preposterous. The Yiddish word for G-d is der Aibishter. The One Who Is Above, eternally above, above the thing we are conceiving Him of right now.

By the same token, to call G-d central to human perfection is so gross a contextualization as to be factually false. G-d in His Infinitude is far beyond being any basis of perfection humans may strive for, even moral perfection. Is this not the very essence of the chok, the suprarational decree no human being could possibly devise had the Torah not decreed it? We do not keep kosher for health or to have a nice ritual to make our community cohere; none of these can possibly explain the precise workings of the halacha, and bizarre cynical contrivances involving Rabbis making things up based on the norms of repudiated surrounding pagans (or the like) must come into play. This cynicism is important if you are traditionally religious; the Jew doesn’t need it, because he doesn’t have to answer yet to both questions.

Now, the Jew doesn’t deny that G-d being true and being central to human perfection are trivially (if not technically) correct. In this sense, traditional religion can serve as a vessel for Judaism, a sort of ideological shorthand for what it does not capture. Judaism as it speaks to these questions, if it is forced to speak to these questions, is like traditional religion. The problems start when that vessel coarsens and darkens, losing its role as a mere interface through which Judaism speaks to certain narrow definitions and becomes the definition itself. And when that happens, the other answers to the questions become incredibly useful.

If someone is getting too comfortable both intellectually and morally, that is, with the conflation of G-d with truth and of G-d with self-perfection, atheism is a good way to kick over their blocks. “Look at all these arguments that say the truth and the human being are both just fine without G-d.” Thus, the Chassidic Master who said that a Jew ought to be an atheist when their fellow man asks for charity or help. We ought not to say, “G-d will provide for them.” Atheism exists to break through the opacity and coarseness of our representations of G-d.

If their issue is primarily making of G-d a source of blessing and benefit to the human endeavor, idolatry is the temptation: “He exists, I grant, but it doesn’t matter! His benefits are achievable without Him. Why pray when you can work, protest, exercise, or study?” The difficult question for the believer that they ought to ask themselves every night: Is there more to me than there was to Abraham’s father? Would I have seen what my forefather saw?

Finally, if they are not concerned with fitting G-d in their heart but rather hold Him as an intellectual ideal, humanism retorts, “You can be spiritually ordered and complete as G-d would want without G-d needing to actually be there; G-d was the center of your heart all along.” Why do you sit at the Pesach Seder, or light the Chanukah menorah? Are these functionally any different than attending a museum? What makes the Jewish Film Festival Jewish? These, too, can be uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.

Traditional religion, in turn, reminds each of these errors that they, too, are errors. It fights atheism’s range of arguments when they wish to end the matter, rebukes idolatrous gnosticism, and rages against humanist myopia.

Meanwhile, the Jew. The Jew belongs to something else, and many sense it. As a perceptive fellow once said, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”

The king is no mere drunk historical Persian lecher. The king is The Ruler of All. The problem is, this is a worldly concept, a translation of the truth. When the Torah calls G-d King, it means He is both more a king (in the defined sense of the term) and that He is not a king at all (in that sense). The space of the ark exists to express that there is no space. The center of Judaism is the center because it is not on the map. As ideologies fight and refine themselves upon each other, we remember that they exist for G-d, and not vice versa. So should we exist.

Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

Douglas Adams Wasn’t An Atheist

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979

Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.

If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.

If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.

Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.

All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.

We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.

Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.

Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.

And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.

It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.

If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.

I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.

“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”

“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”

Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.

We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.

We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.

So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.

So long, and thank you for the tisch.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 10)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time, we spoke about the famous Euthyphro dilemma, and whether a G-d-based morality is self-contradictory.

In this, the final installment in this series, we will deal with the big one, the center of it all, not so much an argument for atheism but atheism itself, and we will see how it improves our service of G-d.

10. G-d does not exist.

Throughout these blog posts, we have endeavored to examine some of the “smaller” atheist claims, that is, the sort of things an atheist might say casually or have printed on a bumper sticker or the like. Rather than serious arguments for atheism, I feel these more intuitive perspectives, by dint of their common-sense approach, capture something of the truth. Furthermore, they capture a deeper truth than religion per se — a deeper truth than lazy religious thought.

Why should this be? After all, an approach that intuitively senses that there is no G-d hardly seems appropriate as a source of religious insight.

In fact, it is an excellent source of religious insight, because (and this is the underlying message of this entire series) G-d’s nonexistence is a fundamental principle of monotheism. That is, just as we gain ever-deeper and more detailed understanding of the Creator through studying His world and His revelation, we also continue, in the religious endeavor, to realize how little it is possible to know about G-d.

This is why the famous response of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is true. “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Just as there is the positive commandment to know G-d, so there is a negative commandment to forsake idols. Until we realize that not believing is fundamental to religion, we will always lack a deep religious insight. Ultimately, the atheist perspective is (mostly) not a flase construction of man but a reflection of the reality of the Creator — that aspect of the Creator which is utterly unknowable, the mysterium tremendum.

To ignore the truth of G-d that we cannot grasp is indeed a certain form of religious arrogance. Once the idea of G-d becomes somehow disentangled from the ideas of omnipotence, infinitude, and transcendence, we begin to worship our understanding of the Creator rather than the creator himself — an intellectual form of idol worship. The impulse to atheism is rooted in the rebellion against this prosaic conception of G-d.

It is intellectual idol worship that allows us to think of G-d as contingent and that his existence is demonstrated like a contingent being. If G-d is indeed just another being, then perhaps He is merely the temporal rather than causative foundation of reality, and his knowledge of the finite realm poses no quandary, and an intimate knowledge of Him is easily conceivable. We run the risk of thinking G-d exists for our emotional satisfaction, or that His subjective experiences mirror our own, or that His mission aligns with what we find easy or important. We can even make the mistake of viewing him as a demigod bound within the laws of the universe he creates. Without exception, these errors come from the certainty that we know the creator, rather than the humility of knowing that we can never know.

Now, the reader might think I am playing with words. Sure, intellectual humility is necessary, and atheists certainly bestow that upon believers, but at the end of the day the theist certainly believes that there is a G-d; that’s what makes him a theist, after all.

But even the assertion that G-d exists is technically false in the monotheistic view. G-d is indeed so transcendent, says Maimonides, that there is no meaning of the word “exist” by which G-d exists. After all, to assert that a table exists is to say that there is such a thing as a table, a defined form, and that there is matter that participates in that form — there is wood in the form of a table, and so a table exists. But the G-d of monotheism cannot be an instantiation of a form, since this would imply duality and finitude — there is Him, and there is his form. And so, by the definition of the term “existence,” G-d does not exist. He shares no positive trait with any other being, and that includes existence itself.

Indeed, the most that could be said about G-d is that he does not not exist. But there is no meaning of the term “exist” by which we can say He exists.

And so, we find in the end that the atheist is right practically all the way down.

The difference between the theist and the atheist is that the theist also believes in the positive aspects of religion, that through some miraculous process the infinite, unknowable, non-existent creator cares about humankind and told them His will that they may serve Him. The atheist, on the other hand, knows only G-d the non-entity, mysterious, and utterly uninvolved in our reality, indistinguishable from a truly non-existent being.

The G-d he doesn’t believe in, we don’t believe in either.

If we’re lucky.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 9)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

In our last installment, we spoke about that old religious chestnut that G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle. We pointed out what to some readers was already obvious: that the “problems” we refer to here are not problems of health, wealth, or happiness, but rather the challenges we face in trying to fulfil our G-dly purpose on earth.

In this, our penultimate(!) Atheist Argument I Like, we will talk about the moral imperative that lies behind that purpose, and whether it exists.

9. What moral authority can G-d have if “morality” is merely what He desires?

This argument often comes citing its pedigree. The question is quite an old one, straight outta Plato, and is called the Euthyphro dilemma.

As Socrates would have it, there are two options when it comes to G-d-based morality — either G-d says something is wrong (or right) because it is, or the thing is wrong because G-d says so. That is, G-d either says murder is wrong because murder is actually wrong on an objective level (thus, G-d is only “the messenger” when it comes to moral truths, but the truths exist even beyond him), or murder could theoretically go either way but is wrong because G-d says so (thus, there are no real moral truths per se but only what G-d desires).

Both of these options are problematic for those theists who tote morality as the thing G-d gives you that no one else can. Because either murder is wrong without G-d and, contra Dostoevsky, everything is not permitted if there is not G-d; we don’t need G-d for morality, or murder is only wrong because of G-d, in which case G-d may have decided murder was okay and the theist would have gladly gone along.

Nowadays, it is this second horn of the dilemma I hear more often — “Are you really saying the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s a no-no? And then you have the gall to say religion makes people more moral!”

As is our custom, our theistic response is, “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either.” Or in this case, the gods you don’t believe in. Because in his criticism of the gods of his time, Socrates was actually paving the way for the G-d of monotheism, even if modern atheists do not see it in the Euthyphro dilemma.

You see, the dilemma is a criticism of the pagan pantheon that has been copied and pasted and rendered in single form in the times of monotheism. But this was a mistake, since the G-d of the monotheistic religions is quite different from the pagan gods, as we’ve spoken about before.

One of the major difference is that the universe in the Greek understanding was eternal, and certainly not created by the gods from nothing. The Greek gods were merely powerful beings, almost like superheroes, and their moral authority stemmed from their power. To this Plato answered, quite correctly, that the gods are either irrelevant or in contradiction to man’s moral understanding of the world; power does not affect ethics; might does not make right.

The G-d of monotheism’s moral authority, however, derives not from strength but from the fact that He is the creator of the universe and of its morals. That is, G-d says murder is wrong because it’s wrong — because in the universe he created, murder is evil (In fact, in a deeper sense, the universe is created from the fact that murder is evil, and G-d’s other moral declarations, as a structure is built from blueprints. That is, the universe has the properties it has, including its moral properties, because G-d had a vision of a place where there could be moral free choice).

This does not make G-d “the messenger” and irrelevant to morality, for He creates it. And His creating it does not mean that its creation is somehow illusory and G-d could turn around and say “murder is good.” The rules, once decided upon, were coded into the fabric of our world, and they are now binding on the creator as much as anyone.

Thus we find Abraham asking, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” In other words, just because G-d wants it doesn’t necessarily make it right. Which is mind blowing. Even further — in the next part of the biblical story, the binding of Isaac, Abraham does not question G-d at all but is willing to kill his own son, because G-d asked it of him. That this story is in some ways the moral center of the entire biblical story and has been puzzled over for thousands of years is a testament to how exceptional it is — proving the rule.

So no, theists don’t say that the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s wrong. Rape is wrong and always has been since G-d decided to make a world showcasing the foibles and fortitude of that creature, man.

 

 

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 8)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time, we spoke about the need to recognize that our subjective reality is completely different from the Creator’s and that his experience of His actions is totally different than our experience thereof.

In today’s post, we will talk about an old religious canard that, with the help of a bit of atheistic thinking, we can blow apart.

8. “G-d gives you problems you can’t handle all the time.”

Religious people like to reassure themselves that G-d doesn’t give you problems you can’t handle. The Jewish texts do say something along those lines (though obviously the texts come with pages of explanations and in-depth commentary and are not the bumper sticker they are sometimes made out to be) — but Penn Jillette disagrees. If I recall correctly, he said that G-d gives you things you can’t handle all the time, like getting run over by a truck, for instance. Not many people handle that too well.

Penn is a famous atheist (and libertarian — perhaps my next series should be on ten libertarian arguments I like?) who seems to largely subscribe to the “religion is a crutch” idea we spoke about back in part 6. I respect his talents, fame, and atheism, which, we hardly need to belabor the point, is a great tool for religious insight. And indeed, he’s hit the nail on the head here.

“G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle” has become something of a cliché. And clichés are evil. Let’s talk about what those holy texts, and religion in general. are trying to say.

Really, it all comes down to what a problem is, and what it means to handle that problem. If someone comes down with a debilitating disease, G-d forbid, or is a prisoner in a death camp, or gets hit by a truck, they will see rapid decreases in comfort and health. They will sometimes even die. And it does no good to pretend that G-d did not cause these things to happen, or, to take the other escape, that these things are easily “handled” in whatever way. If a person is left a quadriplegic and “handling” it means living the life of a healthy human being, then clearly G-d gives us problems we cannot handle.

Problem is, the concept of G-d never giving us insurmountable challenges was never meant to be used to comfort the sick, impoverished, grieving, etc. regarding their dire situations. It was never meant to be, “Oh, you were hit by a car but you can handle it!”

In truth, the “problems” G-d gives you that you can always handle are the challenges you face in pursuing your G-dly purpose. This is in accordance with the general religious perspective that at essence our lives are not taken for granted but rather are given to us by our Creator that we may serve Him.

The challenges in health, wealth, or family are viewed by Judaism merely as the context in which the real drama of life occurs — the drama of whether or not we choose to live up to G-d’s hopes for us, or not. It is in the moral crises of life, those situations where we have a choice between what is right and what is easy, that we are to remind ourselves that G-d gives us no problem we can’t handle.

Really, the unhandleable/handleable perspectives boil down to a much more visceral issue, wherein the theist says, “If I am hit by a truck and die that is His will and if it is unavoidable I will come to terms with it; this is not something I was meant to handle,” and the atheist says, “Are you insane? This is all there is, and the only meaning is the meaning you experience or make, and you can’t do any of that if you’re dead.” This is a debate that aims at the core of our reality and, as such, is a debate worth having.

Way better than a misunderstanding based on a bumper sticker.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 7)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

In part 6 of our near-endless (but 3/4 finished!) examination of fun and educational ideas I’ve heard from atheists about G-d and religion, we spoke about whether G-d is merely a crutch for those who cannot deal with real life.

Today we continue in the vein of arguments that totally circumvent our rational side and go straight for our gut — and teach us something along the way.

7. “G-d is a killer of millions.”

There is a certain Jewish-flavored shower thought I’ve entertained a few times. It goes like this: There is a general principle in Judaism that G-d only gives us commandments he Himself keeps. How, then, does it rain so often on Shabbos, a day when we are forbidden to water the plants ourselves?

There is a right way and a wrong way to answer this question.

The wrong way: Of course we’re being non-literal when we say G-d keeps the commandments. This dodge, the “it’s all just a metaphor” maneuver, has the advantage of producing sweet, lofty thoughts that happen to not be true. That’s why it is so popular. With metaphor, we can basically affirm what we like and worry how it fits into received truth later. By the power of metaphor, everything will always fit. Why even bother with “G-d keeps his own commandments”? It’s just another way of saying G-d doesn’t lie or G-d’s a good guy or history is deterministic or our morality is G-d-given or a thousand other things I didn’t think of in the last twenty seconds. This is nice for speculative analysis or Shabbos table talk but it does not reflect a concern for what the original statement actually intended.

The correct (and, to my mind, far simpler) way of answering the plant-watering question is to contemplate the premise of the question: that rain is somehow similar to us watering plants on Shabbos.

“What do you mean? It’s water. Going into plants. Equals watering plants.”

I’m not so sure, myself.

After all, at what point did we so limit rain and so promote our own abilities that we can even imagine anything we do approaches the verb “to rain”? If water onto ground is somehow a sufficient description for rain, then perhaps stepping on a nail is surgery or taking pain pills is fine dining. Whence this ignorance of context, intent, scope, and agency? The truth is, we have no idea what it means to rain, as a transitive verb. We are ignorant of gathering moisture on a vast scale into clouds and manipulating pressure systems and stacking them up in threatening towers of thunder and sending the gathered waters hurtling toward the ground as a billion translucent spears, clearing the air and washing the earth and giving all manner of creature their life’s sustenance. The subjective experience of making this happen is beyond us. And forgetting this ignorance is the only way to think rain compares to anything we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. “If there is H2O descending it must be the same.”

Technical physical comparison is the grossest sort of comparison we can make here, and even what is comparable is utterly beneath a true understanding of the creator.

Theists certainly should not think like this.

But if you can’t even grasp the difference between watering plants and creating a thunderstorm, you can’t expect to answer correctly when someone points out, “Your G-d is a killer of millions, master of torture and death.”

Here’s the wrong response: “Those deaths are only caused by man’s evil,” or, “G-d is allowed to kill; He is G-d, after all,” or any other dodge of the fact that G-d directly causes all of the death and suffering in the world. These answers are all good but they accept the false, unreflective premise that merely being the cause of death makes someone a killer or their act killing.

In truth, we must remember that we know nothing of the subjective experience of the Almighty. To liken him too much to us is to break all boundaries of reason.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 6)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Back in Part 5 of our continuing series on atheist ideas and perspectives that are good for believers, we spoke about how important it is to recognize and deal with the fact that G-d cannot truly be known (at least not in the normal sense of the word).

But now for something completely different. This time, we leave aside reflections on the nature of the creator for more practical and in some ways more interesting sociological concerns.

6.  G-d is just a crutch for those who can’t handle life.

It is both undeniable from my own experience and a realization of many  latecomers to religion: the people showing up on the religious doorstep by choice are almost without exception flawed, troubled, or lacking success in regular secular life. This leads to the obvious doubt — are people interested in this because it’s true or because they are flawed?

Of course, if one so desired one might point out that human flaws are just as true as any ideology and far more widely accepted, so what surprise is there that the religious subset has issues?

But it’s much more than just “having issues.” I have friends who as they became more religious also went into therapy. As they sorted out their life issues, they came to the conclusion that their initial attraction to religion was due to psychological insecurities, pain, etc. As they in their adulthood learned to manage their problems they found little need to continue their religious practice which for them was always a crutch they used to deal with the world. So I think there are indeed people who at the very least perceived their own connection to G-d as a shield from the difficulties of life.

(On the other hand, there are many who leave religion in the exact same way. That is, not due to an intellectual disagreement or even deep personal incongruity but because they were merely unsuccessful at the religious endeavor or damaged in other areas of their life and thought that by jettisoning their religious commitments they might fix their problems. Many indeed do fix them in some way and find themselves slowly coming back to religion. So practical examples of what specifically is a “crutch” may be a bit of a wash.)

The atheist argument generalizes this situation and is usually coupled with a historical explanation of how religion came about. It says that all religious worship is a defense mechanism against the painful truths of the world.

The world according to most religions, however, is a painful place. There is no religion I know of (not that I am an expert on other religions, granted) that does not acknowledge that the world is imperfect and full of pain and death. Judaism especially has a long history of struggling with G-d in times of great pain, which unfortunately litter Jewish history. We find the truth of anguish undeniable and so cry out to G-d, doubting His goodness. This, too, is part of our religion.

In fact, the only general pain from which religion generally rescues us is the pain of meaninglessness. It is against the existential void that religion indeed acts as a shield, not dulling life’s pains but granting them meaning and in this way comforting us.

Nevertheless, we could still contend (as Victor Frankl might) that the pain and terror of suffering without meaning is so great the it encourages a sort of willful ignorance of the truth (that is, that the world is an accident and our lives are for naught) that many can achieve only through religion.

As usual, the atheist intuition is quite perceptive. In our struggle for meaning, we may often place our intellectual and emotional comfort before the truth, and that is indeed unacceptable. What this thought teaches us is the need to embrace G-d and religion on their own terms, rather than in a way that fills our voids or comforts us per se. The comfort must ever be a corollary of the truth but never itself the goal of our efforts. And the best way to achieve that, in Judaism at least, is to find a coreligionist and speak with them for five minutes. They will be sure to say something about our religion with which we disagree and which might even make us uncomfortable…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 5)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Part 4 of this series dealt with whether or not an infinite G-d would know or care about what takes place in our finite world. We concluded that it is indeed necessary to reconcile the infinitude of the creator with His famed involvement in our lives, and touched on two different ways that was possible.

This week, we will touch on a related issue, from a different angle. We will briefly mention understanding it and, in the process, see how atheist thoughts can often help our theism. Which is the so-called “point” of this entire series of posts.

5. If there were a G-d, he would be totally beyond our comprehension.

I love this idea for several reasons. There is that lovely “there’s only one G-d and Him we don’t believe in” flavor to it. There is the irony of asserting positively that certainly we cannot assert positively about the deity. And there is the fact that it’s true.

It’s true that G-d is totally beyond our comprehension. So the real question is, why is this an atheist argument in any way? How does it support an atheist worldview if religious leaders have been saying it for millenia?

Here, we once again come to realize that the atheist often has a profound understanding of religion — far deeper than that of the non-reflective believer. The theist generally has no problem not comprehending G-d. After all, he or she has G-d’s commandments, directives, rituals, etc. They know what they need to do, and hte means to access their eternal reward or whatever. Why would understanding G-d even enter into the picture?

“Because,” I imagine a patient atheist responding, “your religion is not just supposed to be a game. Is G-d real, or isn’t he? If He is real, real like a table or a dog or an atom, then it should make a difference. It should change everything. It should be the most remarkable truth ever discovered, and you should want to know it.”

For that, after all, is how a human being connects to something; by knowing it. We are creatures of curiosity and knowledge. And if G-d cannot be known, says the atheist, then the religious enterprise is incompatible with the human enterprise. Even if somehow (whether through revelation or pure reason) we knew what that G-d wanted, we would still be mere lab rats in the universe, and man balks at such self-enslavement.

I agree.

It is absolutely incumbent upon the theist to explain how a human, a creature of meaning, can have a relationship with an infinite, incomprehensible being.

In Judaism, there are at least three ways of answering this question. The philosophical answer is that though it is true we cannot know what G-d is, it can take a lifetime of learning and deep though to truly understand what He is not. The general kabbalistic approach takes a different tack and says that while He cannot be known, He has revealed to us different modes of his spiritual expression, and these can be studied and known. The mystical/Chassidic approach says that being itself is non-being and that the soul is one with G-d, and though He may not be known intellectually He may be known as one knows oneself.

Obviously, each of these answers is problematic in its own way, and each requires careful thought to understand. The modern atheist would probably be most inclined toward the philosophical answer, which relies least on revelation and most on “bottom-up” reasoning. But I suspect from the very nature of the inquiry that a negative theology like the Rambam’s would be to the atheist most unsatisfying. The other answers propose that a communion with the creator is in some sense possible, but their answers leave the realm of the atheistic intellect and embrace revelation and mysticism.

Alas, the conundrum of the inherent limitations of intellect and the infinite nature of the creator persists. It is the obligation of ever religious believer to wrestle with it, whatever way they see fit.

On thing remains constant, at least: Think like an atheist, and your relationship with religion only becomes deeper.