Friday, October 13, 2006

"Wrestling with God"

Whenever I talk to my parents about religion, I get the impression that they blame themselves for my atheism – that they see themselves as having failed me somehow. My mother has often told me that she does not understand what happened, that she raised me to be a “good, Jewish boy.” in response to some particularly heretical statement.

Unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that no amount of Hebrew school would have made a difference, for the bedrock of my atheism is a fundamental tenet of Judaism itself – the idea of “wrestling with God.”

Growing up, I attended Shabbat services at my synagogue on a pretty regular basis. My family observes most of the holidays, including plenty that even my Reform Jewish friends had never heard of – Sukkot, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av – and went to synagogue for all of them. And despite my present lack of faith, I actually paid attention while I was there.

My Rabbi frequently sermonized about the importance of wrestling with God. The concept comes from the story of Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32), who was attacked by a strange man. Jacob fought back, and refused to give up, despite injuring his sciatic nerve. In the end, he subdued his opponent, who was revealed to be an angel. The angel renamed Jacob – from that day forth, he was known as “Israel,” which translated literally means “to wrestle with God.”

We, the Children of Israel, have inherited Jacob’s legacy. Judaism is not a religion of blind faith, but a wrestling match. We are encouraged to question, to struggle with our religion – to fight through pain in the pursuit of knowledge. It was neither a love of gefilte fish nor the ability to chant the ancient Hebrew prayers, but this challenge to find my own answers that I took from Judaism, more than anything else.

I spent a long time wrestling with God, and I think my match was more intense than most. I take my ontological commitments as seriously as I take my commitments to other people (and probably even more so). What my parents still fail to realize is that the echoes of the final bell ending the match have long since ceased to ring. They cling tightly to the hope that they may yet help influence the outcome of a match that has been over for a long time. I am no more likely to begin worshipping the God of my ancestors than to begin worshipping the gods of ancient Sumer.

Much of my parents’ hope, I believe, stems from the fact that they are not nearly as philosophically-minded as I am. This is no mark against them – after all, they are far more practical-minded than I am. However, my theological views are nuanced and complex, and they have never seemed to have the inclination to listen to what I have to say – or simply refuse to actually hear it. Perhaps most ironic, as I recently discovered, is that the basic structure of my “theology” is very similar to Kabalistic ideas about God. And though the conclusions I draw from that structure have irrevocably separated me from my People in many ways, I will always be linked to the Children of Israel – heirs of the man who wrestled with God.

Monday, August 28, 2006

In God's Image

When people talk about how man is created in God’s image, they usually go on about certain qualities of human nature – free will, moral qualities, rationality, etc.. Man should strive to be good because God is good, and all that jazz. However, I think this approach places the cart before the horse.

Instead of assuming that God has certain qualities that he endowed us with, only then reflecting upon what those divine gifts are, perhaps it may be more fruitful to examine the issue in reverse. That is, if we are created in God’s image, by observing human nature, we gain insight into God’s qualities as reflected by our behavior in this world.

It is for this reason that I cannot believe that, were God to exist, He would be benevolent. Even at our most altruistic, we are selfish to the core – especially when the game is zero-sum. We seek to increase our power and take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. We slaughter our fellows with swords and bombs. Though capable of works of profound beauty, we are equally capable of horror beyond comprehension, and it is in this image that we are created.

Indeed, this image of God explains the age-old Problem of Evil (“How can an omnibenevolent god allow the evil to prosper, and the righteous to suffer?”) is really quite simple: God is not good. He is an abusive Father, who generously gives His children gifts and black eyes. Cursed art Thou, o Lord, Tyrant of the Universe, who causeth the winds to blow down the walls of the orphanage, and raiseth the waters to drown the widow in her bed.

When the Problem of Evil comes up, I often think about my eighth grade science class. Towards the end of the year, my school received a large number of brand-new computers. To celebrate, my teacher had us play SimEarth – a game by the creators of SimCity where you took a bare, inhospitable planet and tried to create a lush, green paradise teeming with life. As I tinkered with the angle of my planet’s axis and seeded my new oceans with nutrients, I remember thinking that, from the perspective any beings in my Creation, I was God.

Though I cared for my Creation, I gleefully smote my planet with meteors and volcanoes. Destruction can be just as fun as creation – no doubt, a sentiment I share with God. As Satan (played by Al Pacino) put it in The Devil’s Advocate:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do? I swear, for his own amusement, his own private cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, but don't swallow. And while you're jumping from one foot to the next, what is He doing? He's up there laughing his sick fucking ass off! He's a tightass! He's a sadist! He's an absentee landlord! Worship that? Never!
Power corrupts, and omnipotence corrupts absolutely. God is a kid with a magnifying glass, burning ants for no reason but His own entertainment – and, by the look of things, we are created in His image, for we would act no different in the same position.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

"From Moses to Moses..."

I haven't abandoned this blog - quite the opposite. I have several posts halfway written, ranging from the intensely personal to the esoteric and abstract. I'm trying to get them up soon.

I've also finally gotten around to really diving into my copy of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, which has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for the past few years. It's some heavy-duty stuff - I'm going to have to break out my old notes on Aristotle's Metaphysics to really engage with the material on a sophisticated level.

Even so, reading Maimonides is a hell of a lot better this time around. I picked up the book while I was studying in Israel during the summer before my junior year. After completing a couple of philosophy classes, I thought I was hot shit - a master of argumentation, a sophist extraordinaire. I acquired a reputation for posing difficult questions, and for my vigorous debates with the rabbis. At some point, one of the them suggested that I might find Guide to the Perplexed interesting, since it addressed Judaism from a philosophical viewpoint.

I was intrigued. Although I always enjoyed our dissucssions, there was something missing when I talked with the rabbis. My questions or arguments often required some familiarity with ideas coming from philosophy with which they had little, if any, background in. Maimonides, on the other hand, was not just a great Jewish thinker, but an important philosopher in his own right. And his Guide to the Perplexed was explicitly addressed to those whose objections to Judaism came from their study of philosophy.

When I started reading the Guide, however, I quickly found that I was in over my head. Just as I had assumed a certain level of philosophical learning for my arguments, so too did Maimonides. I didn't really understand what he was talking about half the time, and so I laid it down in frustration.

Moreover, though I didn't realize it at the time, my own philosophical thought was still immature - not surprising since I had only been exposed to a few introductory classes - and so the criticisms I did come up with were superficial at best. It wasn't until after I returned to Texas and embarked on the real core of my philosophy major that my deeper objections to Judaism began to crystalize.

During my last three years at Texas, I immersed myself in the world of philosophy, taking every upper-division class that I could fit into my schedule. I even stayed an extra year because, even though I had completed more than enough credits to graduate, I was not yet finished. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to study under some truly world-class professors at a department considered one of the best, and so I tried hard to get as much out of it as I possibly could. And in the end, it changed me - perhaps even more than law school did.

Reading Maimonides now is an entirelly different experience. Arguments and concepts that were opaque when I first read them are now the very things I live to explore. I find myself anticipating many of his logical moves as I read, since I have now studied their Aristotelian ancestry. In many ways, it is the theological debate I have always longed for.

And yet, it is still incomplete. Maimonides, after all, lived in the Middle Ages - he did not have the opportunity to consider the ideas of later minds like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell. He never confronted the computational theory of mind or the paradoxes of Godel's incompleteness theorem. And so, despite my enthusiasm, I still despair that I will ever find the debate that I am looking for. But at least this is a start.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Few More Points on Omniscience, World-lines, and Free Will

I’d like to clarify and respond to a couple of themes from the comments to my last post before I move on:

Comparing God’s choice of creating one of two alternate worldlines to negligent entrustment

My basic thought here was to try and show that, even if Adam had the “choice” whether or not to eat the apple, God is still responsible. Since we often hold people liable for their role in enabling the reasonably foreseeable acts of others, this sort of reasoning should apply a fortiori when the entity in question is outside of time – that is, omniscient. I realize the analogy is not perfect, but I think it is a compelling normative argument against allowing using “free will” to simply absolve God of responsibility for the actions of his creations.

Omniscience and the Nature of Time

I think that using space-time diagrams as a tool to understand omniscience demonstrates at least one key point, but it’s kind of difficult to really “get” – I know I spent countless hours pondering it before really understanding the idea. When you are outside of time, and looking at it as simply another dimension, your experience of temporality is necessarily very different than it would be for a being in time. For you, there is no more serious difference between “before” and “after” than there would be between “left” and “right.”

Consider looking at shelf full of books. All of the books exist simultaneously for you, regardless of whether it is the rightmost or leftmost book on shelf. The basic spatial relation here, “left” or “right,” is just a way for you to describe the relative position of a given book (or set of books). No book has any sort of ontological priority over another because of it’s position – they are all already there.

Time is no different when you are outside of it. In the limited world of the Adam diagram, because you are outside of time, you see every moment of Adam’s existence at once. “Before” and “after” simply describe relative positions on the vertical axis. From your perspective, Adam is eating the apple “at the same time” as he is being created. You could say that he was “always” eating the apple, even though he will only experience it at the point in the upper-right-hand portion of the diagram.

It’s hard to get into this mode of thinking unless you’ve really thought about the concept of dimensionality. Even as we look at this limited two-dimensional world, we are still experiencing a temporal dimension of our own, and it can be tough to abstract out to higher dimensions. However, if you haven’t had the opportunity to take a class involving 4-D geometry and are interested in exploring, I highly recommend Flatland, by A.E. Abbott.

The Point

I think that the ideas of an omniscient God and individual free will are hopelessly contradictory. God, after all, does not simply watch what happens; he sets it up, in one way or another. After all, part of the reason people typically entertain a god-belief is as an explanation for that Big Question, Where did everything come from?

When I take the basic theological premises that Judaism has given me as true, I find that I am repelled by the idea of a God who stacks the deck and then blames the players who fold. I will not do teshuva (repent) for God’s sins. Even if I believed in God, I would not worship him.

Personally, I do not believe in free will – at least as in terms of what people usually mean when they talk about it. I think that the concept is hollow because there is nothing to be free from (hence no “un-free will” either). That, however, is a post for another time.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

“Free will, it is a bitch.”

Judaism places a strong emphasis on free will. This is understandable, since it sees the power to choose as a necessary condition for morality. If you cannot choose to avoid sin, how can you be held accountable for your actions?

And yet, Judaism also believes in an omniscient God – a god who knows everything past, present, and future. If so, how can you really be said to have the free will to choose between good and evil if God knows what you will choose in advance? Hasn’t your “choice” been preordained? After all, you must necessarily do what God knows you will, else God’s knowledge would be incorrect, and therefore not omniscient.

I struggled with this problem for nearly as long as I can remember. Whether I was pestering my Hebrew teachers in elementary school or discussing it over beer with rabbis in Jerusalem, the answer was always the same and always unsatisfying. God, they said, was “above time.” He does not know what choice you will make before you make it; for him, there is no “before.” We, as temporal beings, could not possibly comprehend such timelessness.

For years, I grudgingly accepted this argument as a plausible solution to the contradiction. At least, that was until I was introduced to the idea of a worldline.

My honors program required a special upper-division physics class. The class was infamous – a lecture hall full of liberal arts-minded kids thrown headlong into a world of quantum mechanics and relativity. Although the math was substantially toned down for us, Physics for Poets it was not. And in beating my brain against the theories of Einstein, I realized that taking God out of time was no solution at all. In fact, it only worsened the contradiction.

My rabbis were wrong: we can understand what it means to be above time. All it takes is the right conceptual tools and a little imagination. Time and space, teaches modern physics, are just different dimensions of a unified entity we call “spacetime.” A “worldline” is the trajectory of an object through spacetime, and can be modeled using a “space-time diagram.” Here’s how they work:

The temporal dimension is represented on one axis of a coordinate system. Spatial dimensions are represented on the other axes. Although any number of spatial dimensions can be modeled, I find it easiest to use only one (especially since I’m not even going to attempt to draw a four-dimensional picture with MS Paint…). What we see here are two beings, A and B, hanging out in one-dimensional space. A’s worldline is vertical – he is moving through time, but not space. In other words, he is standing still. B, on the other hand, begins moving away from A, and then moves back towards him.

From our one-dimensional friends’ point of view (reference frame, if you want to get technical), everything depicted happens sequentially, that is, in time. A sees B move away from him before he sees B move back:

We, however, have what you could call a “God’s-eye-view” of their entire world – we see everything that happens at once. It is not that we know that B will return to A “before” it happens, we are above time; while A and B experience one-dimensional movement in time, we see their entire two-dimension worldlines. For purposes of this tiny world, we are omniscient. Visualize tacking on a couple more spatial dimensions, and you get to the perspective God is coming from.

So what does this mean for free will?

According to Jewish thinking, God creates the world at every instant. We can now put this in more elegant terms: God creates worldlines. However, we can also see a few much deeper conflicts between omniscience and free will. Consider the worldlines of Adam and Eve:

Once we look at the story from an omniscient perspective, the problem here is no longer that God has foreknowledge that Adam will eat the apple. Instead, the problem is that God created Adam’s entire worldline, from T1 to T2, and every point in between. In other words, God created a complete trajectory in spacetime that included Adam’s sin!

But let’s assume for a second that Adam somehow retains his independence, that he somehow “chose” his trajectory while God just watched. Unfortunately, this only makes the problem worse. God, being omnipotent, had the option to create two possible Adams, alike in every respect but one: an Adam who would “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he ate the apple, and an Adam who “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he didn’t (call him “Shmadam”).

God created Adam instead of Shmadam, knowing fully well which trajectory either would take. He created an Adam whose worldline followed a direction he disapproved of, who would violate his only command. How can we possibly say that Adam really had a choice in the matter when God chose his worldline over Shmadam’s? He never stood a chance.

In the legal world, we find no difficulty in holding people liable for the reasonably foreseeable acts of others. For example, under the theory of “negligent entrustment,” if you give a raving, angry, and visibly intoxicated man a loaded handgun, you may be liable for any injuries he causes. Can we hold an omniscient God to a lesser standard? Or, is the First Cause somehow less than proximate?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Who I Am

As the name of this blog suggests, I am a Jew. I grew up in El Paso, Texas (yes, there are Jews there), in a relatively observant home. My grandparents and a great many of my relatives are Orthodox, although my immediate family is Conservative. I went to a religious private school until the 7th grade, and I continued my religious education thereafter, including studying at a yeshiva in Israel for a summer. With the exception of high school football games, I had Shabbat dinner with my family every Friday night until college. I went to synagogue regularly, often missing school even on minor holidays (a fringe benefit I did not oppose). In short, I was raised to be a “good Jewish boy.”

My parents often wonder what went wrong.

Despite my upbringing, I am an atheist. Or at least, that’s the best word I have to describe myself. As far back as I can remember, I have had a philosophical mindset – I’ve always lived with my head in the clouds, pondering the Big Questions, obsessed with arguments for their own sakes. It was therefore only natural for me to major in Philosophy when I left my home behind for the University of Texas.

For me, philosophy wasn’t just a major. It was a way of life, a mode of being. Taking required classes and passing my tests was only a secondary concern – I was hungry for knowledge and I consumed it greedily. I was more than a gunner in my philosophy classes – I did extra reading, not to impress the professor, but because I read that shit for fun. I loved nothing more (and still love nothing more) than to sit out by the pool on a sunny day with an ice-cold glass of bourbon, a hookah full of apple tobacco, and a copy of Beyond Good and Evil.

In a very real sense, philosophy became my new religion. It permeated every area of my life. I looked to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for guidance on how to be a good person. I read Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra for inspiration like others read the Bible. I cared deeply about things like the ontological status of universals. I took this shit seriously, and inevitably my philosophy and my religion began to clash.

I honestly don’t remember when I stopped believing in the God of my ancestors. Just like my Bar-Mitzvah suit, I outgrew my Judaism gradually, hardly noticing that it was becoming increasingly tight until the constriction was manifestly uncomfortable. One day, it just burst at the seams and I could never wear it again, even if I wanted to. I was an atheist, past the point of no return.

And yet despite all this, I am still a Jew. I remain connected to a community whose traditions I have largely rejected. I am drawn to my People, even when I feel like a stranger in a strange land in their houses of worship. Although I have the ability to lead a full Saturday morning service in Hebrew, to chant the ancient words of the Torah, I will not bow my head to the God who claims to have led me out of Egypt.

My family still thinks that I can somehow be “redeemed,” that I’m simply going through a period of “questioning.” On a certain level, they’re right – I am always questioning, I’m still obsessed with the Big Questions. It’s just that I’ve found my answer to one of them, and it’s not at all what they had hoped for.

I have started this blog as a forum to discuss the Big Questions, to work out my conflicted issues with Judaism, and whatever else comes to mind. I hope y’all enjoy it, and of course, comments and feedback are always appreciated.
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