Saturday, November 03, 2007

Cynical Kiruv - A Chilul Hashem

In this week’s New York Times magazine there is an article about the philosopher Antony Flew’s supposed conversion from atheism to a version of Theism .

I found the article very disturbing and I think that in some circles the need to succeed in Kiruv trumps truth and decency. To take advantage of an old philosopher who is in the process of losing his memory is despicable and counterproductive. I am referring to Professor Gerald Schroeder who is closely affiliated with Aish Hatorah and who has been lecturing on Intelligent Design as proof for the existence of God. Teaming up with John Haldane, a Christian philosopher and sponsored by Roy Abraham Varghese, a Texan businessman, they orchestrated a debate with Professor Flew and were able to so confuse him that he comes across as if he seemingly recanted on his earlier opposition to religious belief. Varghese then published a book jointly with Flew but apparently mostly written by Varghese claiming Flew’s participation, confirming this recantation. The reporter Mark Oppenheimer who subsequently interviewed Flew describes a confused 84-year-old man who has partially lost his memory and is completely overwhelmed and unable to maintain a coherent position for any length of time.

It is not enough that Schroeder partook in this cynical manipulation; he also uses the Intelligent Design argument as the basis for proving the existence of God. As I have written many times, using ID as proof for the existence of God is a flawed approach and Rambam has already shown its invalidity. Do not get me wrong. I do believe that God created the world and that He is the intelligence behind this incredibly beautiful and well-designed universe. I base that belief on the Torah and revelation and see it as a way of looking at the universe that has consequences in the way I act and think. I however accept that I will never be able to prove this empirically nor will any human being ever be able to prove it. I believe that all we can prove is that there must exist “out there” a non-contingent existent. We cannot define the essence of that Existent nor will we ever. All we know is that there is such a Unique Existent out there and that is all we can know and prove empirically. The fact that He has will, creates intelligently, rewards, punishes etc… are all ontological explanations based on belief and revelation. (According to Rambam, as opposed to R. Yehuda Halevi et al. prophecy as defined by him, is also a provable capability of humans – but that is a separate issue.) In other words, the process is to prove, independent of whether there is Intelligence behind the universe, that God exists and explain the rest as ontological beliefs.

It is disturbing to me and puzzling that a smart scientist like Dr. Schroeder would lower himself to this inane approach. What is even more galling is the cynical manipulation of an old man. Using lies and falsehood in this way is a Chilul Hashem of the first order. It will backfire and discredit Schroeder and his affiliation with Aish Hatorah will erode the respect that people have for that institution.

ז לֹא-יֵשֵׁב, בְּקֶרֶב בֵּיתִי-- עֹשֵׂה רְמִיָּה:דֹּבֵר שְׁקָרִים-- לֹא-יִכּוֹן, לְנֶגֶד עֵינָי.

7 He that works deceit shall not dwell within my house; {N}he that speaks falsehood shall not be established before mine eyes. (Tehilim 101)

Rambam was confronted with a similar situation where some philosophers wanted to prove the existence of God by arguing that the world must have been created by an intelligent entity from nothing. Rambam on the other hand shows that there is no such proof that can stand up to a close investigation.

If you wish to go in search of truth, to cast aside your passions, your tradition, and your fondness of things you have been accustomed to cherish and if you wish to guard yourself against error, consider then the fate of these speculators and the result of their labors. Observe how they rushed, as it were, from the ashes into the fire. They denied the nature of the existing things, misrepresented the properties of heaven and earth, and thought that they were able, by their propositions, to prove the creation of the world, but in fact, they were far from proving the creatio ex nihilo, and have weakened the arguments for the existence, the unity, and the incorporeality of God. The proofs of all these doctrines must be based on the well-known nature of the existing things, as perceived by the senses and the intellect.” (MN 1:76)

Shavua Tov.


  1. I would be hesitant to rely upon the impressions of one author - perhaps we should be dan all parties lechaf zechut until further clarification comes to light.

  2. RJM - At best we can expect a response from Schroeder that he was not aware of Flew's state at the time of the interview but lets wait and see. My real beef with him though is that this approach of proving the existence of God based on ID has been his standard procedure and it is flawed. I have written about it before.

  3. In Schroeder's defense (I don't know him and can't speak for him, although I have perused his books), he is operating within an intellectual milieu that assumes as a matter of course (incorrectly) that the Proof of First Cause is flawed and invalid. So he is doing his best to establish a rational basis for belief in God. I don't think he would claim it was a proof in the strictest sense of the term.

  4. There is something comical in picking on Flew, not because he is old and confused, but because he wasn't much when he was young and alert. The only reason anyone knows his name is that in the sixties there were a shortage of articles in the philosophy of religion that were examples on the ordinary language style of Oxford philosophy that was so popular in those days. Little remains. His main book of that period has not been reprinted. College students encounter some article or other of his in the various anthologies they use as textbooks.Logical positivism is gone. Ordinary language philosophy is gone. What remains is warmed over Hume.

    It is interesting at least to me that some of the best and enduring English philosophers of that period, though far from all were religious. I have in mind Elisabeth Anscombe and her husband Peter Geach as well as Flew's coeditor Alasdair MacIntyre.Wittgenstein was a crucial figure here, not just because of his own mystical views but also because his legacy was the beginning of the end of the style of doing philosophy exemplified by Flew.

    And while I am on a lashon harah rant it should be noted that the whole crowd of ordinary language Oxford style philosophy was not for Jews. It was inbred, uber-snobbish, secular Church of England types, not our crowd at all.

    Sorry for going on but I must mention the book by a friend of Jews, the Indian scholar Ranjit Chatterjee. Here is an example of a poor and lonely scholar from India who took upon himself to establish, where he got this idea I do not know, that Wittgenstein was essentially trying to express ideas that were very close to Maimonides's negative theology. For a review of Chaterjee's book see here

  5. If his name is being used it is by everybody and also being forgetful doesn't mean someone can be made to say anything. It means being limited in being able to remember. He arrived at belief while in full command of his faculties. To remove his humanity is wrong and boorish.

  6. EJ, Thanks for the reference. I do have to get myself more acquainted with more of the contemporary philosophers.

    RG - I hear.


    The above is the link to habermas' interview w/ flew.

    Does the guy sound senile to you? Not to me he doesn't.

    Even if he is now in decline, and even if you think that repudiates his recantation, I don't think anyone could be blamed for not realizing.

  8. Rabban Gamliel11/04/2007 7:08 PM

    The article doesn't do Flew justice. If he had reached the opposite conclusion or if instead of having an atheist contact him from a distance and get him to take a second look it had been that he had chosen atheism and a theist from a distance got him to take a second look, atheists would be found to say it is tenuous and abusive a claim that the reason why he found himself confirmed in his beliefs is that a few years later he is forgetful, rather than saying he took a second look and found ideas he had developed painstakingly over time still convincing. It is also irrelevant to the issues. We don’t challenge thinkers based on how they got their ideas. If they make sense or not it is independent of it.
    Rabban Gamliel

  9. Anonymous, thank you for pointing me to the interview. It does confirm that either Flew has lost it or was manipulated. There is no one in today's world that can argue for the existence of God from design and mean it. The idea of creation is based on revelation as Rambam makes it clear in MN (especially 2:25). If the existence of God is based on creation/ revelation it is not empirically provable. Flew on the other hand argues in the interview from creation while denying revelation. Either we have a very confused philosopher or I am a very confused reader.

    What bothers me about Schroeder is the clear dishonesty. He is too smart to believe in what he says. I already posted once on an article of his in Jewish Action. it was flawed and I don't understand where he is coming from. I am also conflicted about criticizing him because I believe his heart is in the right place so I dont know why he has to go with deceit and falsehood. He may have a Phd in Physics he sure does not sound logical and is a poor philosopher.

  10. Still, though, I don't think you can fault a person who maintains that the most reasonable explanation for the design of the Universe is the existence of an intelligent creator, as long as he doesn't claim that this is a formal proof. I am not sure why you associate the argument from design so strongly with dishonesty.

  11. Rabban Gamliel11/04/2007 10:44 PM

    The Rambam didn't believe that creation is provable philosophically because in his day Aristotle held sway and Aristotle had said that the universe is eternal. Still even from the point of view of eternity design has a point because everything would be dependent on G-d and outside of time that would show in my oppinion nontemporal design. Surely now when Relativity theory says time had a beginning design makes fully sense to me.

  12. RJM and RG,
    I have been thinking about what you argue and here is the way I see it. Rambam tells us that if we accept Plato's view, that there has always been a Chomer (a parte ante) and at some point in time it formed itself into our universe, we could interpret the Torah accordingly. We can attribute will and creation. Plato's position is the closest to the Big Bang theory. Rambam still refuses to use that as proof for the existence of God. It is a theory and we need to prove His existewnce based on reality and not theories.Your argument RG about time does not stand up. Rambam did also understand time as created even according to Plato and the Big Bang. Time came into play when change took place, before creation there was no time.

    So yes once we have shown that God exists we can say that He is not unintelligent,and therefore must have designed the universe and its continuity. We can also say that He must exist if the above is accepted and de facto it is this down up approach that Torah recommends through the Mitzvah of Shabbat - Ki sheshet Yamim etc...

    All this is a posteriori - once we have proven and explained but we cannot reverse the order.

    RG see my post on Hawkins a while back.

  13. Re Schroeder - I may have been a little too sharp - I wish he did not bandy his degrees it would give him more latitude.

    Look at me if I say a narishkeit who cares ....

  14. But if I remember correctly, the Rambam also approvingly cites the proof of God's existence from the existence of matter and form, i.e., there must be a First Entity which is purely form and not composed from the matter/form combination, otherwise it would be dependent on another entity that was responsible for imprinting its form upon its matter. In other words, the process of infusing matter with form had to start somewhere.

    This is very similar to certain versions of the modern argument from design, which maintain that the existence of natural abstract laws governing matter necessitates an intelligent agency that fused the two together.

  15. And, incidentally, of all the design arguments I find this the most compelling. I see no other way to account for the existence of intelligible laws other than by positing an intelligent source.

  16. Rabban Gamliel11/05/2007 12:39 PM

    The Big Bang theory just to be clear posits that time did not always exist. The point I was trying to make is that if the various creatiions lacked an origin in time only in that sense could it be said they don't show design.

  17. RJM true but that First Cause (or Mover) is not necessarily intelligent.

    Once we accept by revelation that God wills, creates and so on we then can of course prove that He exists. But that is not without nevuah.

    Anyway, I think we have debated this before with GH and it is unimportant. In my opinion SDchroeder is wrong and misleading but that is not the real issue. It is Kiruv at all cost that bothers me because it brings about the opposite, chilul hashem and the good ones stay away.

  18. Rambam in one place in MN says that the movements of the planets/ constellations are proof of a Creator, because they couldn't be naturally moving in such a fashion. Doesn't that prove that Rambam believed in using ID arguments? (Disclaimer: I think that ID arguments are a big mistake, and this Rambam proves why!)

  19. Calvin, Sorry I forgot to answer. Rambam uses the argument to prove the existence of a Prime Mover. That is not the same as intelligent design. All it says that there is an entity that is the cause of the first movement. It does not say what the entity is and has nothing to with ID.

  20. You constantly refer to Rambam's statement that creation ex nihilo is a matter of faith, not proven. While that was true in Rambam's days, it no longer is correct. Nowadays scientist assume a beginning, the Big Bang, and cosmological calculations give us a clear estimate as to when our universe must have started. Hence, nowadays, belief in creatio ex nihilo is no longer a matter of faith.

  21. RAF

    If I understand the Bog Bang correctly, there always was a mass but a certain cosmological time it just expanded. This is more like Plato according to rambam. See my post on Hawking and my quote there and "At this time, the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe, would have been on top of itself. The density would have been infinite. It would have been what is called, a singularity".

    It is exactly here where I believe Schroeder is wrong in using his argument and apparently hopes that people will not pickup on it, especially those who are not Physicist. I picked up on it a while back reading Hawking but I am not a physicist either so I may be wrong. See however my other post

    where Prof. Aviezer I believe sees things similarly Venachta Da'ati.

  22. If I understand the Bog Bang correctly, there always was a mass but a certain cosmological time it just expanded.

    The above statement is highly, highly speculative. Numerous physicists claim otherwise.

    If a mass always existed, that might indicate that the big bang followed a big crunch, however, if so, the current universe should crunch eventually, too. The problem is that physics have shown the big crunch theory to be highly unlikely.

    BTW, much of Schroeder's argument isn't classic ID stuff. Claiming that there isn't enough time since the big bang for life to have appeared by chance isn't classic ID, it's a question of math. His critics implicitly agree to that when they make statements on faith that there must be an undiscovered principle that makes life appear by chance, anyway. I.e., his critics speak of the fact that the universe is fine-tuned for life to appear by chance. That is a cup half full, which according to some is half empty. Quite a far cry from those who deny evolution.

    BTW 2: The NYT article betrayed a certain bias of the author. I wouldn't rely on that account to discredit others.

  23. RAF

    I still think that the following applies to your and Schroeder position from MN 1:71

    כאשר התבוננתי בדרך זו סלדה נפשי ממנה סלידה רבה מאוד. וראוי לה שתסלוד, שהרי כל מה שטוענים שהוא הוכחה מופתית לחידוש העולם יש לגביו ספקות, ואין זאת הוכחה מופתית חותכת, אלא בעיני מי שאינו יודע את ההבדל בין ההוכחה המופתית, הוויכוח32 וההטעאה. בעיני מי שיודע מלאכות אלה הדבר ברור וּמְחֻוָּר שבכל הראיות האלה יש ספקות, והשתמשו בהן בהנחות שלא הוכחו הוכחה מופתית.
    בעינַי, קצה גבול יכולתו של איש-האמת33 מבין בעלי הדתות34 הוא להפריך את ראיותיהם של הפילוסופים לקדמות. ומה נכבד דבר זה, אם הוא מסוגל לכך. שהרי כל מעיין פיקח ואיש-אמת33, אשר אינו מטעה את עצמו, יודע שלבעיה זו, כלומר, קדמות העולם או חידושו אין להביא הוכחה חותכת, שכן הוא מקום שבו השׂכל נעצר35.

    Re NYT being biased - I did not see that. I read it and the interview and the reporter seems to be accurate. It is the argument people make when they read something that they disagree with.

  24. RAF
    one more thing about the last part in the earlier comment. I should have addressed it in the post - but it is a fallacious strategy to argue that Ploni changed his mind. It does not say that what he says is true unless it is verifiable . the fact that ANY person believes anything does not make it the truth.

    BTW I liked your Neilah derasha. Your kehillah is lucky to have you. I spent several Shabbatot in Basel years ago on business but that was before your time.

  25. David Guttmann,

    The Rambam writing 800 years ago only had philosophy to hang his hat on. However, nowadays, the evidence for a universe with a beginning is not just a neat argument, but one that is suggested by a straightforward read of the data. Hence, I find your citation of Rambam not so applicable in fact (nonetheless, in spirit, it remains alive and is very useful in other areas, where that which once seemed proven is now debatable).

    Regarding the possible bias of the NYT article, let me remark why I see bias:

    In the second paragraph, the author writes:
    "The book offers elegant, user-friendly descriptions of the arguments that persuaded Flew, arguments familiar to anyone who has heard evangelical Christians’ “scientific proof” of God."

    While the quotes are meant to emphasize that the author, well, quotes from the genre, the quotes in the above sentence are unnecessary, unless one wants to convey that the terms are misapplied.

    Likewise, in the same paragraph:
    "“There Is a God” is perhaps the handiest primer ever written on the science (many would say pseudoscience) of religious belief."

    The parathesized text is apparently meant to convey an evenhandedness, but really graphically draws the reader towards the position of skepticism.

    Finally, he concludes with:
    "At a time when belief in God is more polarizing than it has been in years, when all believers are being blamed for religion’s worst excesses, Antony Flew has quietly switched sides, just following the evidence as it has been explained to him, blissfully unaware of what others have at stake."

    The author seems to accuse Flew of disregarding "what is at stake," if indeed he did so in sound mind. That kind of closing statement resonates with me as the desperate cry of someone who, for instrumental reasons, doesn't want religion to be true. It is a political bias.

  26. David Guttman,
    I really do not understand your issue with intelligent design. It seems, to me, a lot more reasonable to attribute the magnificent world around us to an intelligent entity then anything else. To say this proof is absolute is problematic, but so is any proof for that matter. We accept the most reasonable approach not because there's no other possibility, but because it is the most likely course to take.

  27. Yeshivish, I have no problem with intelligent design as a possible explanation for the marvelous universe we inhabit. In fact we repeat this endlessly in our tefilot and tishbachot. The problem is when one bases the proof for the existence of God on a possible, even plausible explanation of existence one is over on midvar sheker tirchak. See MN1:71 for a detaioled explanation why this approach is doomed to failure and why Rambam uses the language "I have examined this method, and find it most objectionable. It must be rejected, because all the proofs for the creation have weak points, and cannot be considered as convincing except by those who do not know the difference between a proof, a dialectical argument, and a sophism. Those who understand the force of the different methods will clearly see that all the proofs for the creation are questionable, because propositions have been employed which have never been proved." and basing a Truth which is Metziut Hashem on ID which leads to Creator which leads to Metziut Hashem is wrong and when perpetrated by the likes of Schroeder who should know better is a fraud and a lie. One cannot be mekarev with lies when our Torah is Torat Emet. Sorry for my vehemence but as I get older I get more and more turned off by the utilitarian cynicism (at best stupidity and ignorance) of many of those involved in Kiruv at all cost.