Thursday, August 10, 2006

Believing in God: Not for the faint-hearted

Guest Post by (Ex?) Godol Hador.

(Management not responsible for its content).

Warning: This post might cause doubts in people unprepared to think about such matters. Please do not read this post if you are unsure, or if you do not have any doubts. I have no desire to induce doubts in people who are currently doubt-free.

There are two popular arguments for God’s existence.

One is the argument from design. The Universe seems so amazingly designed (with or without evolution – no difference) that it’s incomprehensible to the human mind that such a thing just ‘happened’. There must have been a Creator.

The second argument, (a favorite of my blog host), is the ‘first cause’ argument. It comes in a few different forms (first mover, first cause etc), but the basic gist of the argument is that it is incomprehensible that there be an infinite chain of causality (turtles all the way down). So we posit a First Cause, which needed no prior cause. This First Cause is God.

Both these arguments suffer from the same weakness. In the first argument we say since a creator-less designed Universe is just incomprehensible (or inconceivable), there must be a Creator. However a creator-less Creator is equally incomprehensible. The only way out of this is to say that we expect the Universe’s creation to be comprehensible, but we don’t expect God to be comprehensible.

This is a very weak argument, if it’s even an argument at all. The second argument suffers from the same problem, and actually disproves the first too. The second argument says we can’t conceive of an infinite chain, so we posit a first cause. But we equally can’t conceive of a first cause which needed no prior cause, and which exists for infinity. There is no gain there, and calling the first cause ‘God’ doesn’t help either. By the same logic, you could call the infinite chain of causality ‘God’ and be in the same position. So in fact, even if you determine that the Universe is so amazing it must have had a Creator, there’s no reason to posit one Creator any more than positing an infinite chain of Creators. I guess you could apply Occam’s razor, but it’s still very weak.

Many Scientists agree that it’s amazing that we even understand anything about the Universe at all. A recent book on Torah and Science even used this fact as an emunah bolster, to show how we must have been purposely created to understand the Universe we live in. But by the same logic, we can easily see that the origins of the Universe, something far beyond our comprehension, need not be comprehensible at all. And in fact it isn’t, even according to Jewish philosophy. The Rambam is very, very clear that God is utterly and completely incomprehensible.

In addition to all the above problems (which are significant), we have the additional problem that none of these arguments say anything at all about God Himself, except that He was capable of creating a Universe. But is God good or bad? Or mixed? Did He create the Universe with a purpose? Maybe there were many Gods? Maybe God is a hyper-intelligent scientist from another dimension, who created the Universe as a science experiment, and then forgot about it. On a more humorous note, Ben Avuyah once suggested that maybe our Universe was created as a marketing experiment to see if carbon based life-forms like the taste of chicken. They do (but not the Rebbetzin). Again, we apply human concepts to God and say ‘Well, He must have had a purpose, He must be good, He must be intelligent. We are simply creating God in the form of man, because that’s what comes naturally.

The (truly unfortunate) bottom line here is that according to all known current thinking, the God of Judaism is not at all provable by reason. Some might argue that it’s not provable, but it’s a ‘reasonable conclusion’, but by that logic, saying “I don’t know” is equally reasonable, if not more so.

The bottom line? We just don’t know. I truly, madly, deeply wish we did. But we don’t. At least not be reason alone.

At this point, many people will argue that when it comes to God, we have to go beyond reason. We have to get in tune with our inner spirituality, and that will point us to God. I think we can all agree that this does work for many people. Humanity, for whatever reasons, does have this incredible spiritual drive, not to mention capacity for altruism, love and beauty, which are not (yet) well explained by biology or evolution. Of course this doesn’t prove God, it just shows why humans believe in God. But, our inner intuitions are very difficult to ignore, so by and large we follow them.

Are inner intuitions reliable? Well, considering that billions of people believe in conflicting religious claims based largely on inner intuitions, it would seem that statistically at least, they are not. However much or morality and ethics is also based on intuition, and we follow that to a large extent, so it’s hard to argue against intuition. According the naturalists, our intuition has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, certainly not an easy thing to shake off.

Why do I bring this up? Certainly not to try and convince anyone that God doesn’t exist chas vesholom. I believe in God, for the very reasons I just disproved! But I have to admit they are not good reasons. Do I feel God from some sort of inner intuition? Yes! But I have to admit my feelings are unreliable. Do I believe in the Jewish conception of God? Yes! But I have to admit that this is due to indoctrination as much as anything else.

When reason fails, what should we do? It’s very tempting to say ‘let’s move beyond reason’. But of course once you move beyond reason, all dialogue is impossible. Or rather anything is possible. Anything at all. How can we judge what’s possible, what’s real and what’s just fantasy, when we have moved beyond reason? Of course we can’t. We are in a fantasy world, guided only by our imagination.

Many people, myself in the past included, have ridiculed Kabbalah as ‘inauthentic’, ‘Avodah Zarah’ and ‘fanstasy’. But really, much religious thought can be criticized using the same terms. And, even in Kabbalah, there is the concept that the true essence of God, called ‘Ein Sof’ (infinity) is completely incomprehensible, and that we can only understand the sefirot, emanations from God. Ironically, this is not so far from the Rambam, who believed the planets had ‘intelligence’ and ‘emanated’ the Divine Flow in a cascading series down to the Earth.

Given all of this, does it make any sense at all to think about God? Well, our religion seems to place a high priority on this. But this is a problem, since in reality we don’t know anything at all about this subject, and most likely can’t ever know.

Still, we try.



Further reading:

I would highly recommend the following books:

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner
Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides by Kenneth Seeskin
Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives by Sanford L. Drob

36 comments:

  1. Sweet. Thanks.

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  2. Jewish skeptic8/10/2006 9:54 AM

    >"Why do I bring this up? Certainly not to try and convince anyone that God doesn’t exist chas vesholom. I believe in God, for the very reasons I just disproved! But I have to admit they are not good reasons. Do I feel God from some sort of inner intuition? Yes! But I have to admit my feelings are unreliable. Do I believe in the Jewish conception of God? Yes! But I have to admit that this is due to indoctrination as much as anything else

    Hard as I might try I can't make head or tails of what you are saing.
    You admit that there are no valid reasons (you disproved them), your feelings is unreliable & the Jewish conception of God is just indroctination. Yet, you say you believe in God?!
    As you said so many times on your posts one might as well belive in (your favourite) Zoboomafoo!

    Are you just a plain good old Atheist or Agnostic but you don't have the GUTS to come out the closet & say it. You can't bear the stigma still attached to those words. Or are you just being plain hypocritical?

    PLEASE EXPLAIN IN NORMAL HUMAN LANGUAGE WHAT YOU MEAN BY SAYING " I BELIEVE IN GOD",WHILE AT THE SAME TIME SAING THAT ALL THE REASONS YOU ENUMERATED FOR DOING SO ARE INVALID & NO GOOD.

    I REPEAT: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF YOUR STATEMENT "I BELIEVE IN GOD" & ON WHAT IS IT BASED?!

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  3. If you understand God is total Existence/Being, then you have a very rational idea which is self evident. I think this idea may fit certain Kabbalistic understandings about God too

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  4. If you understand God is total Existence/Being,

    If you alter this to say that God permeates all Existence/Being then you are on to something. To say he IS existence is to limit Him.

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  5. > I REPEAT: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF YOUR STATEMENT "I BELIEVE IN GOD" & ON WHAT IS IT BASED?!

    It just is. When you have something in your head from early childhood, it's not easy to get rid of it (nor do I want to). What's so difficult to understand? Many people have conflicted thoughts and ideas in their heads. It's quite common.

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  6. Rationalism must end up in a form of pantheism.

    Mysticism must end up in a form of panentheism.

    Both paths are somewhat inevitable.

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  7. > If you understand God is total Existence/Being, then you have a very rational idea which is self evident. I think this idea may fit certain Kabbalistic understandings about God too

    Pantheism? Or Panentheism? Or Cosmic Consciousness?

    EX GH (above anon was me too)

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  8. Jewish skeptic8/10/2006 11:36 AM

    >"If you understand God is total Existence/Being, then you have a very rational idea which is self evident"

    To me this statement is meaningless.
    You may just as as well call "existance/Being" by any name you wish.It doesn't add anything to the concept of God.
    All you are saying is"
    "let's name Ex/Being God"
    You have gained nothing.
    It's just playing with words & thinking you have come up with something!

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  9. >Pantheism? Or Panentheism? Or Cosmic Consciousness?

    >Mysticism must end up in a form of panentheism

    >Rationalism must end up in a form of pantheism.

    Can you explain clearly the difference between these terms?

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  10. Panentheism, unlike pantheism does not limit God to the totality of existence but rather maintains that God is transcendent while simultaneously permeating all of existence. Thus everything can be looked at as communicating divine purpose while at the same time not limiting God to the level of human reason and comprehension.

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  11. JS,

    >All you are saying is"
    "let's name Ex/Being God"
    You have gained nothing.
    It's just playing with words & thinking you have come up with something!

    If you read the first post of my blog you will see that I said a similar thing myself before. However I recently came to see it in a different light. I believe this definition closely fits the idea of esoteric religion. I am using the spiritual vocabulary instead of the materialistic vocabulary because I find it helpful for spiritual growth.

    What we are really doing is trying to understand reality and we use the term God to clarify. By saying let God equal X, I am also saying that God is NOT Y. So if I define God as Existence Being, I am saying that the concept of God as an old angry powerful man is false.

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  12. Chardal,

    I am not limiting God. I am saying God is TOTAL Existence. There is nothing with independant existence other than God. I don't know how you could say I am limiting God

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  13. I think then you must clarify your terms. Existence IS limited. TOTAL existence is also limited.

    God is not limited.

    I absolutely affirm that there is nothing with independent existence other than God but by the same token, I don't believe existence is independent. It seems to me that you might be talking about a form of Chabad mysticism but your comments are not clear enough to say for sure.

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  14. I think that an acceptable parable is that of WWI. Then millions of human beings spent incredible amount of time, effort and risk on pushing the frontier just a little bit farther. In rrelation to G-d we are like those soldiers. All of our philosophical speculation and even kabbalistsc exertions is nothing more than an attempt to push the limits of incomprehensibiility of God just a little bit farther and to understand just a littel bit more than we otehrwise would. That is nobel and worthy of a life's work. M. Levin

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  15. B.S.
    >" By saying let God equal X, I am also saying that God is NOT Y. So if I define God as Existence Being, I am saying that the concept of God as an old angry powerful man is false."

    This is the explanation given by the Rambam in the Moreh for describing God by negative attributes.
    But it's a completely different matter indentifying Existance/Being/Nature with the word 'God' & that they are synonimous.It doesn't lead anywhere.

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  16. Jewish skeptic8/10/2006 1:26 PM

    the above comment is by me

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  17. >I think then you must clarify your terms.

    ok. I'll try. I think there are two aspects of reality. One is how we perceive it with our senses and another is how we conceive it with our mind.

    When we perceive reality with our senses we see many different shapes and colors etc. and we are affected by these sensations in many ways. Reality viewed this way is finite and fleeting.

    When we perceive reality with our minds we conceive only unity with no distinctions. Every different sensation is merely us being affected by reality in a different way. But the truth is there is one being which everything is part of

    When I say God or Total Existence I am referring to both aspects of reality, or Reality in its totality, not just reality as we sense it.

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  18. But you are still left with a finite reality that you are equating with God.

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  19. In the book, the secret life of G-d This is what he writes (paraphrasing"

    Panthiesm:

    G-d Minues the Universe = Nothing

    Panethiesm:

    G-d Minus the Universe = G-d.


    The question that is harder to answer, is our relation to G-d, and how the hallacha plays into that, because both Panthiesm and Panethiesm, can very easily lead one to believe that all actions they take are just and correct and "godly".. which is why I think untill recently, people shied away from explaining the world in this way. It is only with so much access to science that people require this level of truth.

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  20. >But you are still left with a finite reality that you are equating with God.

    only from the limited perspective of our senses and imagination. Using Buddhist terminology, I would say that the finite world is an illusion because it only exists through our senses and imagination.

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  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  22. >Using Buddhist terminology, I would say that the finite world is an illusion because it only exists through our senses and imagination.

    The Kutzker rebbe, said the same thing without having access to the Buddhists :P

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  23. >The Kutzker rebbe, said the same thing without having access to the Buddhists :P

    great minds think alike

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  24. However, panthism leaves nothing when you take every thing away. Panethism still has Gd there, when you take every thing away.

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  25. I find it interesting that in Judaism you can find every philosophy and every ideology.

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  26. JS,

    >But it's a completely different matter indentifying Existance/Being/Nature with the word 'God' & that they are synonimous.It doesn't lead anywhere.

    for me it leads to a deeper understanding of religion

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  27. JS,

    I wouldn't get too worked up about names and terms. It's the ideas and concepts that really matter, not what you decide to call things as long as you are consistent

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  28. Why is everybody barking up the abstract philosophy tree for?
    What about direct experience?
    Everyone agrees that to know anything you have to trust your senses.
    Well, why don't we trust the senses of two million people who experienced God directly? This amount of witnesses is overwhelming and not dared claimed by any other religion.

    I Posted recently that the Ramban says that God purposely designed His mass revelation to dispell all REASONABLE doubts.
    Sounds rational to me.

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  29. And doesn't the Rambam say explicitly in the Moreh that you need to be grounded in faith BEFORE you go for the extra-credit points of proving God's existence from philosophy?
    It seems like you have everything backwards when you try to use the Moreh to establish belief in God from scratch like this.

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  30. >And doesn't the Rambam say explicitly in the Moreh that you need to be grounded in faith BEFORE you go for the extra-credit points of proving God's existence from philosophy?

    reference please!

    How do you know how "{grounded in faith" whatever that means, I am?

    please read Rabbeinu Bahya last week parsha on Vehashevota el levavavecha. He was no Rambam and wrote for the masses.

    I think you need to revise your hashkafah. the little i read on your blog and comments over time you a have a very simplistic view of Torah and Judaism. It is ok to be there but it is not what the Torah expects of us. There is therefore no virtue in foisting it on others.

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  31. Spinoza's uncle5/16/2007 6:05 PM

    How about pandeism instead of pantheism OR panentheism. Instead of God being outside the Universe, God exists before and after the Universe, but as long as there's a Universe, God is the Universe.

    ReplyDelete
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