Sunday, March 11, 2007

Professor Aviezer, Skeptics,Evolution, Intelligent Design, "Out There" and Existence of God.

Professor Nathan Aviezer in the current Skeptic Magazine has an excellent article refuting an earlier article by Alexander Nussbaum which argued that Orthodox Jews do not accept evolution and other areas of science. The article titled Jews for Darwin goes on to show that evolution is compatible with Torah, demonstrates that Genesis and science are in harmony especially based on Rambam’s understanding of the six days of creation.

Addressing the theory of ID (Intelligent Design) he correctly relegates it to the area of religion arguing that it is not science. As I have argued many times in my posts ID per se does not prove the existence of God. We believe that God willed the world into existence, not as Aristotle thought that God as First Cause and the physical world was always interdependent, God having no choice in the matter. But proving that God exists based on the fact that the universe is too complex for it to have formed on its own and therefore must have had a Creator who set in place the complex and beautiful laws that govern it, is not a good argument. As Professor Aviezer points out, God’s creative activities are usually carried out within the framework of His own laws of nature. That these laws are God’s is a religious belief not science. As I have shown in my article in Hakirah volume 3 (pages 217-220) God having will, creating the universe, miracles and reward and punishment are all ontological beliefs dictated by religion rather then by empirical proofs.

There is one point however on which I disagree with Professor Aviezer. Professor Aviezer argues that the “prime mover” proof for the Existence of God, in his words, the most famous proof of all, is no longer applicable after Newton’s discovery of gravity. It is true that we no longer believe that constant movement requires impetus and therefore there is no need anymore for a constant “mover” to keep things moving. However we still need to explain how there can be an infinite sequence of cause and effect, which is how the universe functions based on our observations, without there being a First Cause that caused everything without Himself being an effect of another cause. Professor Aviezer left the impression that once the Prime Mover proof is no longer valid we cannot empirically prove the existence of God. I understand Professor Aviezer’s concern that the “God of the gaps” as he puts it, may at some future time play a role in refuting even this argument, that some scientific theory will eventually explain naturalistically how all things are caused. He therefore prefers to relegate the argument for the existence of God to the religious arena rather than the empirical. I have faith that the existence of God will never nor can it ever be disproved. The argument made by Stephen Hawking and the consequences of that position regarding the existence of God as discussed in my post I believe will stand eternally.

On a related note there is a fascinating article in this week’s New York Times magazine titled “Out There” which talks about dark matter and dark energy, the problem in physics that is currently at the center of research. This article brings home that, although we infer that there is a force that we call gravity and we also infer that there is dark matter and dark energy that makes up 96% of the matter in the universe, all of these entities’ essence is totally unknown. We know they exist but not what they are. In a way we are back to where Rambam stood 800 years ago when he said in MN 2:24:

What I said before (ch. xxii.) I will repeat now, namely, that the theory of Aristotle, in explaining the phenomena in the sublunary world, is in accordance with logical inference: here we know the causal relation between one phenomenon and another; we see how far science can investigate them, and the management of nature is clear and intelligible. But of the things in the heavens man knows nothing except a few mathematical calculations, and you see how far these go. I say in the words of the poet, "The heavens are the Lord's, but the earth He hath given to the sons of man" (Ps. cxv. 16); that is to say, God alone has a perfect and true knowledge of the heavens, their nature, their essence, their form, their motions, and their causes; but He gave man power to know the things which are under the heavens: here is man's world, here is his home, into which he has been placed, and of which he is himself a portion. This is in reality the truth.”

The difference is that we have expanded what we consider the physical universe. Rambam believed the heavens were in a different realm where the laws of physics as we know them did not apply. The heavens were on the threshold between the physical and the metaphysical. We have moved them firmly into the physical. However the metaphysical issues remain, as Rambam continues:

For the facts which we require in proving the existence of heavenly beings are withheld from us: the heavens are too far from us, and too exalted in place and rank. Man's faculties are too deficient to comprehend even the general proof the heavens contain for the existence of Him who sets them in motion. It is in fact ignorance or a kind of madness to weary our minds with finding out things which are beyond our reach, without having the means of approaching them. We must content ourselves with that which is within our reach, and that which cannot be approached by logical inference let us leave to him who has been endowed with that great and divine influence, expressed in the words: "Mouth to mouth do I speak with Him" (Num. xii. 8).”

This brings me to the subject of my previous post. Revelation has a place where our own rational intellect cannot go. It is after being properly grounded in the sciences, having understood the limitations of science, the areas that cannot be understood by analysis or inference, that revelation comes along and fills the gap. When we say that we can find everything in the Torah it is when we place scientific knowledge squarely within it and see the revelatory part as the ontological argument that complements where we cannot go alone. Revelation alone without intellectual perfection leads to idolatry and destruction.


  1. The First Cause argument is distinct from the Prime Mover argument, as you correctly point out.

    But it is also unrelated to the infinite cause-effect sequence problem, if you conceive of that in the sense of Kalam, i.e., that an infinite series of causes is impossible, and therefore the Universe must be finite and have a beginning in time.

    As the medieval theologians (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) explained, the First Cause proof stands even if we presume an eternal universe. This is because what it really states is that all things we observe are dependent on some cause for their existence, therefore logically there must be one entity which is a cause but not an effect, i.e., God.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that everything has a cause that preceded it temporally, but that everything we observe has an efficient cause of some sort, even if that cause coexists with it in time (i.e., Aristotle's God).

    There is no refutation of this argument because it is not contingent on any particular model of the Universe, it is logically necessary.

  2. In terms of the argument from design, I must disagree with you on this (I have seen Prof. Aviezer's discussion of this point elsewhere, and do not find it compelling.)

    In my view, the laws of nature, like any other phenomenon, must have a cause. And, as abstract rather than material entities, they must derive from a metaphysical source. I believe that the very existence of natural law demonstrates the existence of a Mind from which they emerged; otherwise, you are again stuck with an effect (laws of nature) that has no cause.

    Here, of course, the model of the Universe one adopts can have an impact of sorts; one might argue that the laws themselves are god, like Hawking or Einstein seem to do.

    But this disintegrates when you realize that the physical world as we know it came into existence at a particular point in time. One would be thus forced to maintain that the existence of the laws of nature somehow preceded the moment of Genesis itself - a point at which they would, in principle, have no meaning - a very mysterious postulate indeed.

  3. >There is no refutation of this argument because it is not contingent on any particular model of the Universe, it is logically necessary.

    That is correct and you have phrased it very well. If you read my past posts on this subject I have many times differentiated nbetween a temporal First Cause and a necessary one. It seeems to be one of the most difficult things to get across; First Cause and an Eteternak Universe.

    >But this disintegrates when you realize that the physical world as we know it came into existence at a particular point in time. One would be thus forced to maintain that the existence of the laws of nature somehow preceded the moment of Genesis itself - a point at which they would, in principle, have no meaning - a very mysterious postulate indeed.

    True but you are assuming a temporal beginning. Without one as you noted in your earlier comment the First Cause does not necessarily have to have a choice. The Big Bang theory which postulates a temporal beginning for the universe as we know it does help your argument. I am not convinced that there will not be a science that will explain (quantum) how things were before the Big Bang. Where there Big Bangs before ad infinitum? I want to stay with rambam who repeatedly warns against proving God's existence from Creation.

  4. Dr Aviezer himself accepts that creation was uniquely suited to the existence of man (he calls this the "anthropic principle"). That *is* Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design asserts that evolution is teleological.
    Everything else - that God would intervene directly in evolution and other such propositions - are touted by some ID proponents, but are not critical to the basic concept of ID.

  5. Anonymous, that is exactly my point. I agree completely with P.Aviezer that ID cannot "prove" the existence of God nor can it be proven empirically. That it may fit better with the theology of Torah is possible but it cannot "prove" anything.

    Re the anthropic principle, one has to differentiate between the fact that the earth is uniquely suited for man and that it was created with man in mind. Rambam vehemently disagrees that man is the purpose of creation see MN 3:13 while other Rishonim have that as the center of their thought. Again these are theological or as I like to call them subjective ontological reasons for existence and cannot enter a debate with someone who has not accepted religion.