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.

Why “Light”?

As many a layman knows, the term Kaballah uses for the divine expression is usually ohr, or light. What the layman may not know is why it’s called light. As we shall see, with the simple notion of light, Kaballah unties a certain persistent problem born of philosophy, or, more accurately, uses the tools of philosophy to free itself of philosophy. The Kaballistic concept of light lays the groundwork both for understanding G-d to truly be beyond our understanding, as well as for having an intimate relationship with that same G-d.

First things first: G-d is not a lamp. The light is a metaphor.

The question is, why this metaphor? Why did the great Rabbis speak of some sort of divine expression and call it light? Of what benefit, in the understanding of G-d, is this notion?

To understand this, as to understand anything, we turn, first, to Maimonides, who codifies the following as Jewish Law and basic Jewish theology, in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah:

[source]

In short, Maimonides here refers to a principle that will also be familiar to thinkers of other Abrahamic faiths, the notion that G-d simply is His own knowledge. Unlike a human being who has a mind, G-d IS His mind; there is no separate faculty of intellect in the Divine Being.

This idea is compelled by logic. His knowledge could be one of three things:

  1. A creation separate from Him. In this case, He doesn’t know anything (since his Knowledge is outside of him the way a tree or frog is outside of Him). How does he know His own knowledge? The only answers would be that He doesn’t, or He knows it with some higher knowledge, in which case we must ask what the nature of that higher knowledge is…
  2. A faculty additional to His being and essence, like human knowledge is to us. This leads, as Maimonides describes, to many gods—He and His knowledge exist in relation, a relation that must itself either constitute a higher being or be explained by a higher being. In either case, G-d here is not G-d, and we must continue searching for the First Simple Being. To call His knowledge a faculty thus does not solve the underlying problems of His knowledge being a separate creation that we saw in (1).
  3. His very being and essence, and part of His perfection. In this case, we must admit our own ignorance, for there is nothing in our universe that knows simply by being. On the other hand, why should the limitations of our knowledge, i.e. that we need a separate faculty in order to know, apply to Him? Is He not the ultimate perfection, possessing all the qualities of the creation, without any of its limitations? To paraphrase the Psalmist, if He forms the human mind, does He Himself not know, even though He has no mind like ours?

This third option is summarized above by Maimonides as “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself,” even though it is “beyond the abilities of our mouths to relate or our ears to hear.” It is a conception of G-d as a being of perfect and infinite knowledge, even though we cannot even properly understand, in our minds, what a perfect and infinite knowledge is. In fact, we can only say what the perfect knowledge is not.

If everything in our universe derives from Him, He must possess it in some way, and in fact, in the most perfect and highest way. So He knows everything by knowing Himself, that is, simply by being. He and His knowledge are the same thing.

Therefore, when we say He knows, what we are really saying is that He is perfectly lacking in ignorance, misunderstanding, etc., not that He actually possesses a separate faculty of knowledge as we do. This approach of defining G-d by what he isn’t is known as apophatic, or negative, theology.

This very same method of knowing G-d by ascribing to Him all perfection and negating from him all privations, limitations, or lacks—this negative theology—is taken one step further by Kaballah, and applied to his emanation or light as well.

How would G-d express Himself?

To answer this question, we first look at how things express themselves within our knowable universe. There are generally two ways. This is important because the second is often missed (and understandably so, for as we shall see, it is rare-to-nonexistent in human self-expression).

The first way is what we recognize from nearly all human expression. When I speak or teach or dance or type or even wear certain clothes —call this influence or wilful expression. I am not naturally writing this essay. I was not born typing words like these. I choose to do this.

If it was natural (like, say, my heartbeat, or how many bones I have in my right hand) I wouldn’t choose it wilfully, and since I am choosing to express myself in this way specifically (rather than using different words or writing an essay about cute cats) it is clearly not a natural expression. And since it’s not natural, it denotes a change in my own state. An hour ago, I was not writing—not thinking of how to arrange these words, or how to move my fingers to put them into this machine. Now, I am doing these things. I am personally involved in doing this.

Contrast this with the second form of self-expression. Call it light.

Consider the sun. The sun does not choose to emanate its light, but does so naturally. It does not shine for another to understand, or recognize, or accept. It shines regardless. If everything but the sun were to disappear in an instant, it would continue to shine exactly as before. The sun is not invested, emotionally or causally, in what happens to its light. The sun shines naturally, without any change to its own state, constantly, and without choice.

Now, let us apply the principle of negative theology, in which we define His perfection by what He isn’t, by the limitations he does not possess. G-d has the qualities of both of these means of expression, but the limitations of neither. This means He expresses Himself both wilfully (like influence) and naturally (like light).

In other words, if He were to express Himself, He could do it by choice, but without the self-investment and -change that choice would imply if a human being made it in this world. He could do it naturally, like the sun, but without the limitation of the sun’s nature; He is not compelled to shine.

This combination of qualities, of the wilful and the natural, is beyond human understanding. In our realm of understanding, things are either automatic or done wilfully, either natural or a choice. It is only the Creator, who is beyond all limitations, who can have both together.

With this capacity of Divine expression to be both natural and wilful in mind, let us return to our three-way choice when it comes to the Divine Knowledge.

When we revisit Maimonides’s three-way choice, we find that something has changed. True, His knowledge still would not make sense as an entirely separate creation, the first choice. True, it still makes sense as the third choice, as identical with His being and essence.

But what about the second choice? What about knowledge as a faculty secondary to His essence? Before, we rejected this option, because we assumed knowledge would be related to Him like our knowledge is related to us, as an influence, as an act or expression that changes us and in which we’re invested. It was only with the third choice, when we saw His knowledge as identical with His essence, that we applied the principle of negative theology, and admitted His mind is perfect in ways we cannot comprehend.

But what if we apply negative theology to the second choice as well? What if we view His faculty of knowledge not as an influence, but, because He is not limited to expressing Himself in this way, as a willed light?

If He had a faculty of knowledge separate from His essence that was an expressed light, we would not have the problem of many gods, for light, as a natural expression, is totally united with, secondary to, and expressive of, its source. The sun’s light cannot be mistaken for a second sun. It’s purely a function of the sun’s being. In other words, natural light cannot even really be said to exist in the sense that its source exists. If the entire universe was filled with the sun, we would recognize that in truth, light is nothing but the sun’s shining — its natural way of being. Therefore, if His knowledge is a faculty (option (2)), that is, an emanation, it is not a separate being in the same sense as a frog or a tree. Option (2) is truly advantageous to option (1) when we consider a faculty to be natural like a light rather than willed like an influence.

On the other hand, since His is a wilful expression of light (unlike the sun’s), He is also separate from, and not compelled or defined by, this expression. On the contrary, it is just as apart from His being and essence as a creation, in the sense that He chooses to emanate it. In this, light has the advantage not just over option (1) but also over option (3). That is, if we conceive of His knowledge as a wilful emanation, it accomplishes something that conceiving of His knowledge as identical with His essence does not.

If G-d’s knowledge is a Divine Light rather than identical with His essence, then G-d can be truly beyond understanding. Not just in the sense that He is the perfection of knowledge and knows by knowing Himself in a way totally alien to us, but in the sense that His Essence is not that which is even the source of our understanding. In other words, when we apply apophasis to our knowledge and say He is the perfection of this imperfect earthly trait, it is not even to Him we refer, but merely to His emanation. And experiencing or recognizing the sun’s rays gives us no sense of the sun at all, especially if these are only those rays the sun chooses to emanate.

What is not known is not merely the way of His knowledge. What is not known is how He would express anything, and therefore, with a little more thought, what He is beyond His knowledge. He a complete mystery undefined in any worldly terms.

Therefore, divine light is advantageous both to a created knowledge (1) and knowledge through identity (3) — a middle road. It is more united with Him than a creation, yet it does not define G-d in terms of his own knowledge.

On a practical level, the divine light forms a basis for the proper relationship with G-d: On the one hand, we never demean His essence by saying it is some infinite form of our knowledge. On the other, we can endeavor to closely know His knowledge, which is His authentic willed emanation.

The very possibility of a willed divine light frees G-d Himself from the bounds of worldly comparison and definition, and has, for generations of students of the Inner Torah, thrown open doors of possibility their minds had previously thought shut…

Based on Chapters 4-5 of the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus.

My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.

Epissedoffmology.

How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Peace Be Upon You, Traveler

Peace be upon you, traveler,
through night’s fevered exhale
or sun-charred road,
to lover’s threshold
or the white citadel!

Perhaps you drive through the bank at midnight
because your daughter has a cough
or to hasten morning’s commute.
But maybe you bear
as rushing blood
to foreign lands
circulating dollars
through Taipei’s tunnels
or the flowering alleys of Sao Paulo.

You did not ask my permission,
did not show your face,
real and stubbled red as Capistrano,
or smooth-chinned as the Lotus Temple,
and risk the fleeting.

You were wiser –
like rain cobbling the paths at Sarnath,
like feet smoothing the slopes of Jerusalem,
you chose eternity
and did not show your face.

That’s alright.
This, too, is just a game
of hopscotch
with G-d clapping the time.
If-you-miss-one,
that’s-o-kay,
your-life-leads
else-where
a-ny-way.

Leave.
Forget the rules
and the electric bill!

Can I really blame you
for sneaking out
when all implied authority,
though not declaring it illegal,
finds this smuggling, well,
irresponsible?

Do not fret at our parting.
Your headlamps thirst for the mile;
your ticket pulls you forward.
There is an edge even to this circle;
bless me, and traverse it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Teaching of the Rebbe Rashab

In commemoration of the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, 20 Cheshvan, 5778.

Why would G-d create the universe? It doesn’t make sense.

A philosopher knows it doesn’t make sense. G-d is, of course, the perfect, necessary being. He needs nothing; He is utterly complete in a fashion quite beyond human reckoning. Even the words “complete” or “perfect” fail to describe him, for our words work metaphorically, and to say He is perfect is to say He shares a quality of all other things that are perfect, of a category or form or nature of perfection. But G-d does not exist in a category; He is His own form; He has no nature but is the ground of all natures. To say He is perfect is only to say he lacks all known imperfection. This is the highest thing we can say about G-d. But how, then, does G-d come to create a universe? When we act, we act because we are lacking something. When we want something, it’s because we want something — we are found wanting; we lack. But He does not lack. Therefore, He does not want. If He does not want, He does not want the universe. And yet the universe is here. Isn’t it?

A kabbalist also knows it doesn’t make sense for G-d to create the universe. In the beginning, we are taught, there was G-d and his infinite light, the full expression of His being. The light filled the entire place of the void; all that was, is, will be, can be, and cannot be was filled with His light, was filled with the fullness of His self-revelation. He decided to create the universe, and so He moved His light to the side, leaving over a vacuum and an empty space, into which he poured a single ray of the original light. This is the primordial Kav, the ray or vector, by which He creates all worlds spiritual and physical. After an infinite number of infinite descents, the Kav eventually creates the worlds of emanation, creation, formation, and action, and finally the very physical realm in which you are reading these words. The universe is the terminus of a single beam of His expression within a space devoid of the knowledge of G-d. And one day, in the messianic age, when the purpose of the world’s creation is fulfilled, that void and empty space will once again be full of His infinite light. First, his light filled it. Then, there is the creation, and his light is removed. Finally, his light is returned. So, the light was here, and one day it will be here again. The universe is just a moment in between. What could be the point of that?

One source says, He created the universe in order to be known. He wanted something else, something other, to taste of His truth. But when only He and His light existed, there was no other. In fact, there was no room for other, as a concept. All of reality was subjective. Everything was I. There was no room for thou. There was no room for reality. Everything was “in His head.” So G-d contracted his “I” and left a void and an empty space, so that objective reality may arise, and then He created other beings, who could meet him in that objective reality, and they could know each other. A Creator looking down at reality. A creation looking up at reality. A shared place. And He would no longer be alone.

But this itself does not make sense. For in our physical universe, we do not know Him. His presence is so concealed here that we have no inkling of what He is, and many have even forgotten that He is. The objective meeting ground is almost entirely beyond our grasp. “The Creator,” reminds the philosopher, “is completely beyond the limits of human intellect, to the extent that none of our words describe Him.” We know Him only through negations, only by saying what He is not, and even then, this is not an experience, not knowing — it is running on fumes, a grasp of His reputation. We do not know Him the way we know our mother, the way we know ourselves. It is only the soul as it stands above, or the abstract intelligence of the angels, that begin to understand the Creator. If He wished to be known, He should only have created the higher realms, the hidden realms, where G-d is as obvious as the rising sun and as directly experienced as ice cream. If He desired to be known, why would he create the low pit of physical reality?

Another source says He created the universe in order to actualize His potential. Before He created objective reality, He was only able to do it, and once He did, He actually did it. Everyone knows that doing it is better than the ability to do it; the perfection of potential is in its actualization. To this, both the philosopher and kabbalist speak up. The philosopher objects that we’ve misunderstood, since obviously the perfect being is pure actuality; He does not have unfulfilled potentials, since that would entail multiplicity which cannot be true of G-d. The kabbalist objects that we’ve misunderstood, since what part of His infinite light being the full expression of His being did you not understand? Everything that can be and cannot be is expressed in that One Infinite Light, the Ein Sof.

We might object that the universe does not exist as a physical entity within the unity of that expression. That is, even though everything is somehow contained within His infinite expression, it does not exist there as it does when He actually creates it by removing the light etc. But this is no real objection. Everything that happens from the removal of the light down to the actual physical universe is only a lower, more distant, “dimmer” expression of those same realities. In simpler terms, the creation of all worlds from His light is a subtractive process. The world is created by taking things away, not by adding them. And so if He already has his light, actually creating a physical universe adds nothing to it. It is not a further expression of Him. On the contrary, it is the slightest, most limited, most infinitesimal part of what He already possesses in Himself, before the creation. This is the general rule: There is no potential above that lacks actuality. He already possesses everything that can (or even cannot) exist. So why go through the diminishing process of actually creating a universe?

Indeed, the creation of the universe does not make sense.

He creates it simply because He desires it. If he wanted it because of its qualities, that would imply He was lacking those qualities, and He is not. He does not want, or lack, anything. He chooses to create the universe not for its qualities, but for its deficiencies. He “desires a dwelling place in the lower realms;” He does not desire it because it accomplishes some end (this being impossible, since he has no ends that are not accomplished), but for its own sake, for no reason, from a place beyond reason.

But if He himself is the perfect being, utterly actual, and lacking nothing, then how does He choose to create the universe for its own sake? He does not choose to create a being, for he is lacking potentiality, and if such a being were possible it already exists, one with His light. He does not create a new potential for a being, since if that potential were new, it would not have been expressed in His infinite light, which is impossible, since His infinite light is the full expression of His being. Whence, then, the Universe?

Rather, He chooses to create the world from the place of His own “being beyond being,” where He does not exist at all in any sense of the word existence, where we say He exists only because we cannot say He does not exist. This is what we call G-d’s own self, and it cannot be said to exist, or not exist. It is beyond all reckoning. There, in Himself, he bears potentials that are not actualized, for He Himself transcends the binary distinction of existence and non-existence, potential and actual, perfect and imperfect. Within Him, there is imperfection, though the word “is” refers to something utterly unknowable. Within Him, imperfection is a limitation and violation of His Truth only as much as perfection is. And it is from this place that He chooses to create the Universe. And therefore, it is only the physical universe, in violation of all laws that seem to bind Him, that fulfills not some external or arbitrary calculus that He creates, but satisfies Him Himself.

This is what is accomplished by the moment of the universe, the moment  between His infinite light filling the void before creation and the messianic age. It is not the same light. The first light was the full expression of His being, but since it was an expression, it was not Him Himself. And through the universe, the blink of an eye between eternities, He Himself is expressed, in a new and greater light.

Based on the first discourse of the famous “Samech Vov,” Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShana 5666.

Wisdom, By Accident

Like many curious kids, I considered the metaphor of the inkwell with both passion and suspicion.

Passion, because in the fresh dawn of my young mind’s awakening, proof, and even better, proof of big things, captured my imagination. Suspicion, because with a mind comes the awareness that big claims demand big proof, and that our fathers can be our indoctrinators, and maybe the people from the Internet are right.

Like many curious kids, I felt I was in a position to judge the inkwell, to weigh the truth of it with the tools I owned and decide what to believe.

In deciding, the course of my life philosophy would be set.

I would never have to wander.

***

Confession of a recovering debater: In the surety of my youth, when I could still answer questions, I was deaf to nearly all the inkwell had to offer.

I can still remember one of the first arguments I ever had on the Internet, when small, homey forums were the norm, before Reddit or persistent identity or the rule of the common denominator. I could not yet have been fourteen years old. Middle school was garbage, the Internet more interesting. But these strange people with their foreign gods came and dented with their adolescent antagonisms the words of the work that remains the foundation to my entire life, The Little Midrash Says. So I looked to argue with their teenaged Darwinism, seeking to settle the matter forever, for the entire Internet, once and for all. I would never so glibly produce the metaphor in argument again. I learned it only in order to teach, studied only to break my enemies’ hubris. This was unwise. But looking back on my younger self, I cannot stop him; he did what he thought was right.

I slapped the inkwell down upon the proverbial table.

The inkwell can be summed up in one sentence: “If a letter or a poem cannot be created by an inkwell spilling, how can the world come about with G-d?”

If there is one thing that characterizes the cruel hopes of our youth, it is the assumption that the world, so used to crushing others with indifference, will yield to us. I was taken with this hope, and therefore nothing appealed to my thinking quite like science. And it was by science that I thought I’d won the argument.

***

Here is how a voracious reader of children’s encyclopedias understood the inkwell: It is a statistical argument stemming from the nature of structure and design. What are the chances that ink spills and forms words on a page? Astronomically low. How do we then look at the massive complexity of the world and arrive at the conclusion it likely has no designer?

The first of my Internet interlocutors demanded I produce the credentials of a scientist who found this argument to be valid – a clear win for me, as any rookie Facebook scrapper knows. But the second guy told me if one rolls the dice a trillion trillion times, it shouldn’t surprise us that they come up correctly once. I had no response to this; it makes sense.

In the years since, I’ve realized this is the argument of the multiverse theory, and that it gained popularity largely because it’s good at answering this question. Licking my wounds, turning his response over and over, I’ve composed my perfect riposte, wherein I first get him to concede the importance of evidence and then press hard for evidence of this alleged vast cosmic lottery which violates not just Occam’s Razor but, in its unsurpassed inelegance, Occam’s blunt club as well. In bedrooms, dorm rooms, and classrooms I worked out how to save the inkwell from his attack, but never until adulthood did I once consider it was my perspective that needed rescuing.

***

The god of the probability inkwell has all the metaphysical weight of the purported planet Vulcan that was once assumed to intervene between Mercury and the sun. Vulcan was never observed, but Mercury moved strangely, and so scientists proposed, in order to rescue their own understanding, the existence of an extra planet we happened to not yet have seen.[i]

So, too, did I, a curious boy, march proudly onto the world stage with my adolescent intellect and declare, arms akimbo, that G-d must exist because if He doesn’t, I don’t understand the universe.

And that, make no mistake, is the nature of the probable god. He is the conclusion to a thought process that begins with materialistic axioms. He is the “god of the gaps,” who exists only to explain holes in my understanding that may tomorrow be plugged, rendering him irrelevant.

Therefore, it’s only natural for his worshippers to turn from theists to deists, who believe that G-d if he exists, is irrelevant. They say G-d gave the universe over to nature[ii], a comforting position different from atheism but not to the extent that G-d can actually do anything, change the world, or disrupt our enlightened conquest of nature.

And if deism is functionally atheism, its only god is a once-upon-a-time watchmaker who introduced order and design and naught else. Why blame the actual atheist for calling everyone’s bluff and declaring he has no use for a statistically probably deity? Who can blame him for finding likely scientific explanations, such as Darwinian evolution, for design, and thereby stop up the gaps?

If the process that arrives at the creator absolutely assumes and uses empiricism and statistics, who is my highest deity, really? With gods like these, who needs gods?

***

It was only later, walking near the elegant curve of Jerusalem’s white bridge, mind split between the sidewalk and my headphones, that I first heard the goal of knowledge is to not know.

My life was then steeped in transformation. The official Deeper Mysteries of the Universe seemed to pour from mouths and inky pages in my Yeshiva, my Hebrew quickly improving with my thirst to grasp the next class, the next page, something with an answer. And slowly, not all-at-once, but with the sometimes-painful rearrangement of my inner architecture, it began to occur to me that the search for questions should precede the search for answers.

It seemed implicit in the order of the intellectual sefiros, for example. Chachma precedes Binah; the rigorous analysis is birthed and informed by the ineffable flash of insight; it is only through knowing what the thing is that we can understand anything true about it. It was also hidden in the structure of the Chassidic discourses, which used their questions precisely, like spiking a spigot into a barrel, to break through to deeper comprehension. Most of all, the question’s advantage over the answer cried out to me when I reviewed something I first learned months or years earlier, when my initial understanding blew away like chaff, because I did not in the first round understand the question the information came to answer.

A boy seeks a better teacher, flashier arguments, new information. A man, I learned, seeks to listen to the first teacher properly, revels in “boring” technicality, and learns the old discourse again. A man puts deeper before further. It is a pleasant thing for one to grasp in one’s early twenties, because trying to go further has its limits and they are our limits, the ones we are just beginning to learn. As a sage once said, nothing is going to hit harder than life. The cult of further, of which I was an initiate when I first met the inkwell, is an attempt to launch a counterattack on life. All you get for it is bruised knuckles and a bruised ego.  The way of depth is the way of accepting the blow and changing oneself.

***

The inkwell, it turns out, is not about the statistical likelihood of a designer god. Such an interpretation would probably have sounded heretical to Rabbeinu Bachya, who deploys it in Chovos HaLevavos. Again: To say the world has no creator is to accept that a knocked-over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter. However, this, I assure you, has nothing to do with statistics, and only a little to do with design. This is about meaning, purpose, and unity.

My mistake as a boy lay in not considering what makes a letter or poem significant. It is not the chances of ink landing in the shape of words or sentences. It is the fact that we can distinguish them from a random spill at all. What is the poem, that my heart leaps up when I behold those words upon a page? Why are they meaningful? How can marks of ink on dead-tree membrane cohere into “The Tiger”? Only, a good philosopher would tell you, through telos, the final cause, tachlis. What makes the poem is not merely its matter, which is only ink and paper, nor its form, which is its arrangement, nor even the hand that writes it, which brings the arrangement to the ink and paper. What makes the poem the poem is purpose. Matter is incoherent, form does not alone provide a discrete existence; a hand bereft of purpose produces nothing. Give each of them an ordering purpose, a unifying cause, and the stanzas flow like wine.[iii]

When the inkwell is overturned and the ink forms a poem (and not merely ink in the shape of a poem), we are observing unity and purpose without an intelligence to make it so, order and directedness simply arising on its own, and this is impossible. It is not impossible that knocked-over ink could form something in the shape of a poem without an ordering intelligence, merely highly improbable. But it is impossible for knocked-over ink to form a poem, because a poem is inherently purposive.

If things which have an effect exist, they are not mindless accidents, for if they were, what precise effect could they be said to have? Don’t believe the rumors; vodka makes you drunker rather than more handsome, every time. There is an inherent, consistent order to it. And what is order if not intelligence?[iv]

In other words, a poem, by nature, being a thing directed toward an end (say, making your girlfriend cry), must be created that way by the presence of a unifying and purposive mind. The very notion that we recognize the running ink of the accidentally overturned well as a poem, rather than stationery, or a Rorschach test, or a handwriting test for children to trace, indicates that we are judging it not merely by its matter or form but by its purpose as well. What is preposterous is not that ink should coincidentally attain the form of what is materially indistinguishable from a poem, but that the coincidence could cause a poem.[v]

So, too, the universe, which coheres in an orderly fashion. This coherence is explicable only in terms of intelligence – and we know where that leads. The matter and its form are in a sense created by the question that they answer.

***

I realized in Yeshiva that the question is more important than the answer, that our purposes define the information they try to teach us.

But it was not enough.

The devotion to going deeper rather than further alleviates some of our coarsest problems, but raises new questions of its own.

The world is, it seems, not as logical as even the wisest sage can possibly understand it to be. The highest knowledge, to not know, is a call to further learning draped in a shroud; it has an air of tragedy about it. Philosophy only goes so far. It, too, begins with axioms. For example: We can know the truth; we do not live in an illusion. This seems true, but limits us, ultimately, to the world as it appears and our minds as they seem to work. There is no way to prove it, no other solid thing on which to base itself.

As many Yeshiva students have learned, the world of appearance is not enough. One does not break free from exile by affirming with absolute certainty the reality of the pharaoh as he appears. The exodus does not begin with believing only our eyes. One only escapes Egypt with a little wilderness at the edges of one’s brow, with a dream, with openness to seeming-stupid sentiment, like a child. “The way everything is,” said the one in five Hebrews who followed Moses across the sea, “is not how it must be. Water can be blood. The waves can be dry land. A slave can be free.”

It’s possible, if G-d wills it. Anything is.

***

If the world has no creator, a knocked over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter.

I came to wonder, later, driving down a wintry road, radically divorced from all assumptions, from all I thought I knew:

Who knocked over the bottle?

 

[i] It turned out that Newton’s physics was wrong and therefore predicted the motions of Mercury incorrectly. Once Einstein’s General Relativity was accepted, there was no longer any need to stipulate an unobserved planet between Mercury and the sun. It should be emphasized that the existence of Vulcan was not an illogical stipulation, given that Newtonian physics was thought at the time to explain everything and was not going to be abandoned as untrue without a better alternative. The Vulcan affair does, however, provide an example of how empirical data can contradict a theory and yet not falsify the theory – making Karl Popper sad.
[ii] Almost certainly a form of idol worship in the Jewish tradition.
[iii] A Yeshiva student has the same causal needs. His matter is flesh and bone, derived from bad food and too much caffeine. His form is either a pleasant plumpness or a drawn, gaunt skinniness. Flesh and bones without that form could just as easily be a banker. But the form of a Yeshiva student only attaches itself to him because something else puts it there, say, the Rosh Yeshiva. But when the Rosh Yeshiva sits down and teaches Torah to someone, he strangely does not create a Torah scroll, though he might be a scribe in his spare time. He makes people into Yeshiva students, and parchment into a Torah scroll, and he knows which one he’s doing because he is intelligent and acts with purpose. It is only the end-goal of creating a gezunte bocher’l that allows him to connect matter with form and create the guy you see walking on the street with his towel in the morning. And it is only G-d who, even once the Rosh Yeshiva is long gone, lends the whole package unity.
[iv] Related question: Where does this property of a bottle of vodka, that it will make people drunk, reside if no one ever comes along and drinks it? We seem to know that it would nevertheless make someone drunk if they come along; this is part of what we mean that there’s an inherent order to these matters. But doesn’t this imply that in some sense making someone drunk (which might never actually happen with this bottle) causes the vodka to be vodka? Isn’t this nothing causing something, which is impossible? This led some intelligent people to conclude that rather than being nowhere, the final effect of the vodka is present in the mind that understands the vodka to be vodka, and thus makes it what it is. Call the mind the vodka maker. This is all well-and-good when the Vodka maker is some well-paid Muscovite (although of course, we’d have to explain where the Muscovite’s effects hang out before they’re actualized). Now do it with a seed producing a tree, and figure out where the tree is hiding the whole time – making David Hume sad. (You — hey, you! — if you made it to the end of this footnote, you should probably know the kabbalists probably say the tree is ‘hiding’ in Atzilus. This is not a reason to panic.)
[v] Or, to declare what is materially indistinguishable from a poem to be a poem is to refuse to explain the inherent telos, or ends, of reality – essentially to deny true cause and effect, as Hume did.

 

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.