Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Cause" for Confusion

The First Cause Argument for God's existence has a lengthy and distinguished history. Like many of the classic metaphysical proofs, it is widely believed to have been "debunked" by David Hume and similar skeptics. However, the fact remains that many contemporary philosophers still take the First Cause Argument very seriously.

As most of the readers of this blog probably already know, I was involved in extensive blog-debates over the past couple of weeks, several of which revolved around the validity of the FC Proof. I defended the argument and maintained that most of the challenges raised against it were based upon misunderstandings of its premises. In order to clarify my position, I will present the traditional form of the proof and then offer some additional commentary. The proof runs as follows:

All material entities are dependent upon external causes that account for their existence. However, an infinite chain of dependent entities is impossible. Therefore, there must be an entity outside of the chain of material entities upon which the material chain as a whole is dependent. This entity would of necessity lie outside of the framework of space and time.

Two objections are typically lodged against this formulation:

1. It is not true that material entities all have causes. Although we see that the changes that occur to matter and energy are caused, that tells us nothing about the origin of matter itself. Maybe it was always here.

2. If we are going to posit that "something" is ultimately uncaused, why not simply say that the first material entity was uncaused? Why assume the existence of something outside of the material realm altogether?

Since I believe that I have already addressed the second objection satisfactorily in the past, I will set it aside for now and focus on the first. I may return to discuss the second issue in a future post.

The first objection is based upon a misconception that unfortunately plagues most discussions of these issues. The hidden assumption underlying #1 is that the definition of a "cause" is an agent that brings a certain object or entity into existence at a particular time. Therefore, if matter is eternal and therefore never "came" into existence, then this means that there is no need to assign it a cause.

This interpretation, however, is not what the philosophers intended when they proposed the First Cause proof. In fact, many of the thinkers who subscribed to the proof actually believed that the Universe was eternal! They simply employed the term "cause" differently than we do.

We tend to think of causes in a mechanistic, temporal sense. The bat causes the ball to fly through the air. Ingestion of the medicine causes the body to heal. This model of causality is derived from Descartes and is a product of relatively modern thought. It is not compatible with the framework in which the classical thinkers operated.

Causality, as understood in the classical context, means that upon which a thing's existence or nature depends. We are all the results of myriad "causes" that explain the fact that we exist and account for the way in which we exist. These factors may be genetic, environmental, or even cosmic in substance.

When we trace the chain of causality back far enough, we eventually hit a dead end. We come upon the most elementary entity, the basic building block that served as the cause for everything else in the Universe, yet the question remains - why does it exist and have the properties it has? By definition, in order to "explain" the first material entity's nature, we must make recourse to something beyond it.

This is why I would suggest that rather than utilizing the word "cause", we consider using the word "reason" instead. "Reason" doesn't have the same mechanistic overtones as "cause."

The proof would then run like this: Every material entity has a reason for its existence that is external to itself. That reason, in turn, has a reason for its existence. Yet an infinite chain of explanation is impossible. Therefore, we must conclude that there is a first entity whose reason for existence is inherent.

An example may clarify my point. The arrangement of molecules in a particular stone is attributable to numerous causal factors external to the stone. Those causal factors - local environmental conditions, for instance - wound up that way due to more fundamental, geological determinants that pertain to the makeup of the Earth's core. These geological determinants themselves are the product of broader astronomical determinants, etc.

But there is a limit to how far back we can trace the chain of "reasons" that account for the molecules in our stone. Ultimately, there must be a reason why the first determinant - the point from which everything else in the Universe initially emerged - existed precisely the way it did to begin with. The determinant of matter/energy itself can only be found outside of the framework of the material world.

It is important to note that, even if all of the causal factors or "reasons" existed simultaneously and from all eternity, the interdependence and hierarchical structure of the various entities would still be apparent. There would still be determining factors and determined factors. There would still be a need to account for the very first determined factor, by finding a determining factor external to space and time.

I feel that, by refining our use of language in this manner, our discussions of the First Cause Argument can proceed more thoughtfully and constructively.

Admittedly, this post is being completed off the top of my head rather late in the evening, so further installments will be necessary before any treatment of this subject can even approach comprehensiveness.

However, since I will be unable to post again until Wednesday at the earliest, I thought I should contribute something to the debate that can serve as food for thought in the interim.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Minor Delay

Sorry for the delay in posting my latest piece on the First Cause Argument...My schedule was unexpectedly complicated over the past two days, and this prevented me from finishing it.

I hope to post the final draft on Saturday night.

My belief is that the approach taken in the new piece has the potential to bring further clarity to the whole discussion.

Perhaps some of the misunderstandings will be laid to rest once and for all, and more fruitful analyses of the merits and limitations of the proof can begin.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Revisiting the Red Heifer

This week's Parasha opens with the law of the Red Heifer and the process of ritual purification from contact with the dead. It is the perfect opportunity to revisit a worthwhile post from earlier this year.

Stay tuned...I hope to complete a post defending the First Cause Proof for God's existence later today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Sin of Moshe

Another outstanding literary analysis of Parashat Hashavua, courtesy of Rabbi Elchanan Samet.

As he explains in the concluding section of the piece, his interpretation of the text corroborates the Rambam's understanding of Moshe's error at Merivah.

You can read an abridged version of his essay translated into English here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Erring By Design

The Argument from Design is one of the classic and most time-honored rational proofs for the existence of God. Yet its primary line of reasoning not only appealed to the ancient thinkers - indeed, it continues to enjoy popularity among a good number of contemporary scientists and philosophers to this day.

The essential thrust of the Argument from Design is this: The Universe exhibits a remarkable complexity, lawfulness, and order throughout. In the biological realm, the appearance of intentional design manifest in the harmonious functioning of living organisms is unmistakable. It seems profoundly unreasonable to attribute these phenomena to mere happenstance. Thus, we must infer that an intelligent Being is in fact responsible for them.

Enlightenment Period skeptics, beginning with David Hume, have challenged the Argument from Design on many counts, and their objections have been reviewed and rebutted by more recent thinkers. However, bad habits die hard, so moderns frequently declare that the Argument has been debunked, and tend to recycle even the most dubious of Hume's critiques as if they were beyond reproach. Perhaps the most talked-about contemporary atheist who has levelled Humean attacks against the Argument from Design is Richard Dawkins, whom our own favorite blogger-skeptic has borrowed from in his discussion of the topic.

The truth of the matter is that the objections to the Argument from Design are not very impressive philosophically. Many of them are flawed so seriously that they are naught more than chains of fallacy in disguise. In this post, we will confine ourselves to those counterarguments deemed by our friend to be worthy of an appearance on his blog. His anti-Argument-from-Design is formulated there as follows:

If you say you need an N+1 creator to design an N, then God is even more amazing than the universe, so you have simply pushed the question back one level, and now you have the problem of who designed God. And if you want to say that God doesn’t need to be designed for some incomprehensible reason, then you can say the same about the universe, for some incomprehensible reason.

Now, if you are philosophically inclined, reading this may already have given you a serious headache. But let's examine the argument he is presenting and attempt to define why it is flawed.

Basically, the counterargument proceeds like this: The Universe is incredibly complex, amazing, etc. This leads us to think a Creator must be behind it. But this Creator, in order to have produced such an amazing Universe, must Himself be even greater than that Universe. So, if we are going to ask how the Universe could be so intricate in the absence of a Creator, then we must ask the same about God - how could a Being so amazing possibly exist without a Creator?

The error in reasoning here is simple. When we observe the Universe's breathtaking harmony, we are faced with two options - either this order is a mere accidental grouping of blind material forces into lawful patterns, or it is an intentional design expressing itself through matter. The former seems terribly unlikely and forced, so we choose the latter.

But it is crucial to understand why the first option is counterintuitive - it is because we don't expect inert, brute matter to become organized into patterns of its own accord. There is nothing in pure physicality that suggests that it should have to or would tend to conform to any kind of intelligible principle whatsoever. So we naturally conclude that this must be the result of an external cause who designed the Universe on purpose.

God, on the other hand, is not something we believe to have emerged "by accident" from the chaotic motions of physical particles. He is a metaphysical Being devoid of any material properties - the source of order as opposed to an ordered entity. Wondering who designed God is like wondering who "designed" a concept - the term is simply inappropriate, since ideas are not constructed from raw materials; they are discovered or perceived. Attempting to apply the notion of design to God is ultimately an exercise in futility.

Considering an example of design drawn from our earthly experience will clarify this point. An architect formulates a coherent layout for the construction of a new home. That model is, so to speak, "imposed upon" the wood, brick, plaster, etc., by workmen who implement the instructions of the architect, and the result is a house that physically embodies the conceptual plan. Neither the materials alone, nor the architectural scheme alone, would ever bring anything particularly impressive into existence by themselves. It is only when the vision in the mind of the artisan finds expression in a physical medium that we see "design" manifesting itself.

So the question of the design of the Universe, which is comprised of matter, is legitimate, while the question "who designed God" is not.

Our good friend continues:

Now some people will argue that God is simple, and hence He fulfills the N-1 option above. But what kind of ‘simple’ is this? Not any kind of ‘simple’ that we can comprehend. Basically it’s just playing a word game, calling something simple when by any normal human standard we would call it complex.

This part of the argument betrays hazy thinking in the domains of theology and science. The premise underlying it is that whatever is responsible for the Universe must be as complicated, if not moreso, than the Universe itself.

Upon reflection, however, it should be obvious that this is not the case. Scientific theories aim to explain the complex phenomena observed in the world through the use of simple, general constructs that have the ability to account for an enormous number of particulars. Time and time again, science has revealed that what manifests itself to our senses as staggering complexity presents itself to our minds as the expression of a small set of fundamental principles. In fact, scientists' ultimate dream is to formulate a single Theory of Everything that will elegantly account for all observed phenomena in the material world.

If the skeptic's reasoning were correct, then this objective would be deemed absurd or even impossible from the get-go, since any theory of such grandeur would of necessity be more cumbersome and intricate than the subject matter it explains.

To summarize, then, we see that the concept of positing God as the ultimate source of the harmony in the Universe is actually quite logical - it is the natural culmination of the process of understanding our world. At first we take in a wealth of sensory information and feel overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our environment. Then we slowly but surely move from the material details to the realm of the theoretical and conceptual, and begin to see myriad phenomena as expressions of an underlying set of rational principles or laws of nature. As we transition from experience to principle and from data point to concept, we similarly transition from complexity to simplicity and from chaos to order. This process of simplification and unification eventually leads us to the recognition of the Source of the majestic system of physical law itself - the Creator of the Universe.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Perils of Skepticism

Recently, in a discussion of his conflicts regarding religious beliefs, a well known skeptic in the blogosphere wrote the following:

Some things I am on the fence about. Some things I am off the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence and then get off. Sometimes I get off and then get back on. Sometimes I am off the fence, but then have a chnage of heart and jump over to the other side of the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence, and fall off unintentionally. Sometimes I am on the fence but think I'm off it, but really I'm on it. Sometimes I think I'm on the fence, but really I'm off it.

This reminded me of a famous statement in the second chapter of Maimonides' Laws of Idolatry:

We are commanded not to consider any thought that might lead us to uproot one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to it, reflect and be drawn after the imaginings of our hearts. Because a person's mind is limited, and not all minds are capable of grasping the truth accurately. And if just any individual were to be drawn after the musings of his heart, he would end up destroying the world on account of his limited intellect.

How so? Sometimes he will occupy himself with idolatry, and other times he will reflect upon the oneness of the Creator - maybe it is true, or maybe not; [or he will muse about] what is above, below, before or after the Universe. Sometimes he will consider prophecy - maybe it is authentic, maybe not. Sometimes he will think about the Torah - maybe it is divine, maybe not. Yet he does not know the principles by which to judge these matters such that he should grasp the truth properly, thus he eventually becomes a heretic.

About this, the Torah states, "do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." That is to say, everyone should not follow the inclinations of his limited intellect and imagine that his thinking process has led him to the truth.

Certainly the Rambam does not intend to discourage thinking. What he is emphasizing is that an individual who wishes to investigate the most basic questions of religious meaning must be a person of profound humility who possesses the requisite background knowledge and the necessary training to succeed in his quest. Even someone with all of these qualities will fail unless he exercises extreme caution throughout the process, and carefully distinguishes between issues he is prepared to tackle and those for which he is not yet ready.

One who doesn't have the prerequisite qualifications for this course of study is bound to fail. He will move back and forth between different ideas based on their intuitive appeal - "maybe it is true, maybe not" - and will be unable to arrive at secure conclusions. As Maimonides explains in several places in the Guide for the Perplexed, the reason for this flip-flopping is a reliance - conscious or unconcious - on untrained intuition.

A person with an extensive background of study in a field of knowledge will develop an intuition grounded in reality. His gut feeling about an idea will carry weight because it is rooted in authentic intellectual cognition. This is why great physicists, mathematicians and Talmudists often legitimately and successfully employ their intellectual intuition in the course of theorizing about problems in their respective subject areas.

In one famous incident, Rabbi Soloveitchik z"l, known as the Rav, was asked for evidence to support a legal ruling he had offered. He responded that his conclusion was intuitive; nonetheless, he observed, "my intuition is halacha." Having been immersed for countless years in the wisdom and methodology of the Talmud and Codes, the Rav harbored no doubt that, when a specific formulation of a Torah concept appealled to him, this appeal had a rational basis and was not merely subjective.

A novice, on the other hand, has only his imagination and his emotions from which to draw intuitive guidance. Naturally, these agencies are among the most fickle and unreliable in the human psyche. They can provide the appearance of certainty one moment, only to replace it with doubt and skepticism in the next. Unfortunately, our innate desire to arrive at the truth and to investigate the mysteries of existence often causes us to overestimate our competence and delve into subjects that are beyond our ken. With nothing but shaky intuition leading us, we have a very slim chance of success.

This is where the benefit of mesorah, authentic intellectual tradition, comes in. All human civilizations transmit a cultural mesora of some sort to their citizens. This tradition shapes the values, practices and beliefs of the members of that civilization from earliest youth. Similarly, the mesorah of Judaism provides us with a system of metaphysical principles and mitsvot that serve as a basic framework for a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual growth. In its absence, the vast majority of people would either spend their lifetimes in philosophical perplexity, or be overwhelmed by the pressures of instinct and devote themselves to hedonism or materialism.

Of course, skeptics will question the tradition and wonder why they should accept it to begin with. I have already discussed this point on Vesom Sechel in the past, and hope to revisit it again soon.

Here it is in a nutshell: Judaism offers a systematic, rational approach to meaningful living. Its principles and structure are unique, profound and coherent. And the authenticity of its mesorah is rooted in the historical experience of an entire nation rather than resting upon personal testimonials alone. I think this makes it by far the most reasonable choice available to a thinking individual who is interested in conducting his or her life prudently, consistently and reflectively.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Relying on Miracles

Sorry for the delay in posting...My schedule hasn't permitted me to write much lately, but I am beginning to get back on track!

In this week's Parasha we read about the famous incident of the spies. Moshe sent twelve representatives of the Tribes of Israel on a fact-finding mission to the Land of Canaan. As we all know, the would-be spies utilized their trip as an opportunity to orchestrate a quasi-rebellion against Moshe and, as a result, the Jews were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years.

The commentaries debate whether Moshe sent spies because it was appropriate to do so, or whether this choice was actually a concession to the weakness of the Jewish people who needed reassurance before their entry into the land.

The Ramban argues that it stands to reason that Moshe would have sent spies regardless of the feelings and attitudes of the people. Although the Jews were charged with the responsibility of conquering the Land of Israel, Hashem expected them to conduct this campaign prudently and not to rely on miracles. As a part of normal military strategizing, Moshe would certainly have sent agents to gather data that would help him formulate a swift and efficient approach to capturing the Land. Moshe would have proceeded like any other political leader in this respect and would not have blindly and simplistically placed his trust in Divine intervention.

The Ramban's interpretation, however, raises an interesting difficulty. In Parashat Lech-Lecha, the Torah tells us that, immediately after Abraham arrived in Canaan, there was a famine in the land and he was compelled to relocate to Egypt. Although most commentaries regard this choice as appropriate and wise, the Ramban is an exception. He criticizes Avraham for lacking the faith necessary to remain in Israel despite the scarcity of food. Since Hashem had instructed him to settle in Canaan, Avraham should have trusted that he would be well taken care of even during a period of hardship.

In another post, I discussed the more traditional view of this narrative about Avraham and the lessons we can derive from it. It is certainly possible (and, in my opinion, more intuitive) to read the story of Abraham's trip to Egypt differently, and not to construe it as a failure on his part. Nonetheless, this is how the Ramban interprets Avraham's choice in this matter - as an error of major proportions.

The question, then, is clear. In the case of Avraham, the Ramban suggests that unwillingness to rely upon Divine intervention is a defect. By contrast, when it comes to the story of the spies, the Ramban states that, as a matter of course, a person should not rely upon miracles, and that it would have been incumbent upon Moshe to dispatch spies on an investigative mission before leading the Jews into Israel. Why does the Ramban distinguish between these two circumstances? Is reliance upon Divine aid praiseworthy or inappropriate?

I believe that the Ramban would answer as follows: Avraham was (ostensibly) commanded by Hashem to dwell in the Land of Canaan. Remaining there was, in and of itself, fulfillment of a Divine decree, and Avraham should have been willing to take risks in order to do so. There was no excuse for him to leave and thereby contravene Hashem's instructions. Avraham had reason to assume that God would provide for him in Israel no matter what, since he was involved in the performance of a mitzvah that could not be completed otherwise. Put simply, being in Israel was the mitsvah.

On the other hand, the commandment given to the Israelites in the desert was to conquer and settle in the Land of Canaan. But making decisions about how they would accomplish this objective was their responsibility entirely. Because it was only a means to an end, the process of conquest and settlement had to be carried out with careful forethought, extensive planning and thorough deliberation. There was no guarantee of miraculous assistance unless the Jewish people did their part to make the mission a success. Divine intervention would be experienced on an as-needed basis only!