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.

9 comments:

XGH said...

I am honored to be mentioned on your blog.

"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."

Thats a great nutshell! And you're gonna have to reasonably prove every last word of it.

Daganev said...

"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."


Unless ofcourse you arn't Jewish, then you should just be a Noahide :)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Daganev,

Of course, but I consider Noachides to be living according to the principles of Torah, even though they have a different format.

XGH,

That final paragraph is not the kind of thing that can be proven in the abstract. If I had stated that physics is a systematic, comprehensive approach to mapping out the principles that govern the material Universe, I couldn't "prove" it from an armchair; one would need to have firsthand experience with the field for months and years before becoming fully convinced of it.

Rambam System said...

I think Einstein echos R Maroofs comments very well...

It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space... It is mainly a program, and faith in the possibility of its accomplishment in principle is only founded on partial successes. But hardly anyone could be found who would deny these partial successes and ascribe them to human self-deception.

But whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

Sanhedrin 38b - v'day l'chakima b'remiza. 'nuff said.

XGH said...

Also, it's a little disingenuous of you to quote an obviouslt tongue in cheek comment I made to deganev to bash me with it. But since you are unavoidably biased I know you can't help yourself.

More importantly, the years of grounding in Judaism just serve to make you even more biased. And, as the Halachah says, you are not allowed to seriously entertain thoughts that God doesn't exist or TMS is false. Hence your intellectual quest is unavoidably biased, since halachically you are not allowed to reach certain conclusions.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

XGH,

I am sorry if you found my quotation of you to be unfair. I really didn't intend to bash you with it. My purpose was to use your description of existential angst and conflict to illustrate a concept.

I would appreciate if, in general, you would not hurl personal accusations at me. We have already been made to understand your allegations that I am irredeemably biased. But it is unnecessary to repeat this time and time again in harsher and harsher terms when we all know that there are much more significant issues to discuss.

happywithhislot said...

as i commented on xgh, the days of doctors yearning for patients who yessed them is long gone.

people feel empowered.

of course the rambam will say, its dangerous to contemplate this stuff, because it seems so often that people who think about this realize something isnt right.

but then again, youre saying subject a chassid to a life long isolated life of chumras etc. becuase he shouldnt question what his rebbi is teaching him.

where does it end?

Anonymous said...

I've always been skeptical of skepticism.