Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Disputation

My 4 hour Conversation with Rabbi Maroof

Full Transcript

XGH: Hello, is that Rabbi Maroof?
RJM: Yes, hello.
XGH: How are you?
RJM: Fine, fine. And you?
XGH: Fine.

Oh forget that, I’ll be here for the next 3 weeks. I’ll just have to summarize:

XGH: You’re a fundie fruitcake!
RJM: And you’re just a non serious cynic!
XGH: Good night!
RJM: Good night!

But seriously, it was quite a good conversation. Four hours! The last time I had a four hour phone conversation it ended off with “You hang up first” “No you hang up first!” “No you!”

So what happened?

I started out by explaining to RJM why I feel religion has credibility problems. Turns out, he mostly agrees with me. I will summarize:

With Science, you pretty much have global consensus on all the ikkarim. Sure, there are arguments on fringe areas, and in areas which are still very theoretical (e.g. string theory), but the basics are well established, with global agreement.

Religion in contrast, is characterized by global disagreement. Of the 5 billion religious people in the world worshipping 11 or 12 mainstream religions, and probably hundreds if not thousands smaller religions and sects very few of them agree on anything. Not only do the major religions not agree with each other, but even denominations within the religions have disagreements, often even more violent ones. Not only different denominations, but even different sects within a denomination have serious disagreements! Just look at MO and UO, two sub groups of one denomination of one religion, and they can’t agree whether a 15 billion year old universe is kefirah or not!

[Important Note: I am talking about religious beliefs here, for example which book was written by God, or who God spoke to. I am not talking about abstract ideas, ethics, values and morals, where of course there is more agreement, but that’s not the topic of this debate.]

So why is this?

Why is there global agreement on Science, but global disagreement with Religion? Id it because Scientists are good at compromising? Good at working in teams? Gaining consensus? While Religious leaders are appalling individualists, lone rangers and can’t ever compromise?

I don’t think so. I’m sure the character traits of Scientists and Religious Leaders follow roughly the same pattern (though maybe the Scientists are a more analytical and less spiritual crowd).

So if we can’t explain this massive and significant difference by character profile, what is the cause?

I maintain that the cause is simple: Science relies on objective facts. Facts and theories are proven by experimentation. Results are tested, validated and subject to peer review. Articles published in magazines generally go through a review phase. There is very little bias (in the basic principles, there certainly is bias in theoretical areas e.g. Dark Matter). There is also little dogma – there is no rule that Science can’t be changed or improved if new facts come to light. All in all, the system works very well. Most historians would say that Science is the most successful human endeavor in the entire span of history.

Religion however is very different. There is a serious lack of available facts: We have no experiments that can prove God’s existence, we have no data that proves Har Sinai, or the Resurrection of Christ. Instead, we have what RJM calls ‘Sevarah’, and what I would call ‘Subjective Opinion’. Each religion has its traditions and beliefs, which are not backed up by hard data or experimentation, subject to peer review, but rather rely on reasoning which somehow is never convincing to members of another religion.

Even worse, there is no methodology, organization or process in place to even work on gaining consensus. Sure, we have some inter-faith dialogue, but that’s really not about gaining consensus as to whether Torah is the final word of God or whether the Koran is. The only time in history there was anything like a concerted inter-faith effort to get to the truth was the period of the Disputations, though they were usually rigged anyway to force the Jews to lose (though we still won quite a few!).

RJM and I agree on all this.(Surprise!) RJM further maintains that this would be theoretically possible – we could get together a committee of intelligent honest people, and have them figure out a methodology to get to the truth. Of course he thinks they will all conclude that Judaism is the truth, whereas I think they would all eventually either kill each other, or turn into skeptics. However the important point is that we both agree there is a serious problem here with religion.

Furthermore, religious arguments are incredibly subjective, since they are based on ‘Sevarah’ and not on objective facts and experiments. Of course it’s not 100% black and white, some Science is somewhat subjective, and some religion can be somewhat objective, but by and large religion is massively more subjective than science.

This can be seen clearly by the fact that there is global agreement on Science, regardless of race, religion or culture (apart from the fundamentalists of course), whereas with religion, you always find that each religion believes in itself, but doesn’t believe in any others (with the possible exception of some types of Hindus who believe in all religions).

RJM had an interesting argument here: He claimed that some of the consensus of Science is due to the fact that modern Science was preceded by Aristotelian science, and there was global agreement on that for 1500 years, and so a precedent had been set. I’m not so sure this is a good argument, but I didn’t pursue it.

So far so good. Where RJM and I now begin to diverge is that my conclusion from all the above is as follows:

We know there is global disagreement in religion.
We know that religious arguments are incredibly subjective
We know that each religion has its arguments that pretty much are only convincing to members of that religion (and a relatively small number of converts and born agains). Sure, if every convert all converted to the same religion, that might tell you something, but they don’t.
The only logical conclusion here is that no religious belief has any credibility at all.

I’m not sure RJM agrees with me here. He was pushing the argument that you can’t a priori dismiss any religious argument because of the lack of credibility. You have to assess each argument on its own merits. He claims to have done so, and has read the New Testament and Koran in depth. (I’m not sure about the hundreds of other religious texts and religions, seems they didn’t get a fair hearing!) Anyway, this point is somewhat irrelevant, because I am happy to asses his arguments on their merit.

At this point, we turned to discussing RJM’s proof for TMS. He holds that though myth formation is a well known historical fact, the myth of TMS is so different and so unique, that its highly implausible it was invented without it being true. RJM points out that the Neviim are constantly lecturing a wayward Hamon Am and telling them to give up their idols (which they clearly lusted after), because of Har Sinai and the Mitzvot. RJM says that if Har Sinai, was just a myth invented by the Neviim, then the Hamon Am could care less, and why on earth would the Neviim think they could persuade the Hamon Am to give up their idols based on something they didn’t believe in anyway. And, if you want to claim that the Hamon Am did believe the Myth, and were involved in its formation, then this is even stranger. Myths usually encode the desires and ideas of the people. So why would a people desiring to worship multiple idols ever participate in the creation of a myth which proclaims one God and forbids idols! It’s highly implausible, and therefore a reasonable conclusion is that the myth of Har Sinai is actually true.

I have two arguments against this.

1. This analysis is not the only possible analysis. Maybe the Neviim were part of the priestly / religious class that developed the myth over hundreds of years. The hamon am, being less religious were somewhat involved, though not integral. Think of it as the UOs and the MOs. As time went by, the Hamon Am became more and more enamored of the local idols, and started to forget the myth of Sinai, or at least not follow the commandments. The Neviim tried to exhort them to follow the Torah by repeating the Myth of Sinai. Everyone knew about the myth of Sinai, however it was a myth. Some of the Hamon Am listened, some didn’t. Some maybe really were skeptical, Tenach doesn’t really say. True, the myth is unique, in that it’s a myth of national revelation rather than individual revelation, but just because it’s unique doesn’t make it implausible.

RJM seemed to recant at this point a little. On the blog, he had seemed to dismiss my scenario as ‘silly’, whereas on the phone he seemed to agree that my scenario might be plausible. Not sure what he would say now.

2. My second major objection is that even if RJM is correct, and that Myth Formation for TMS is a highly implausible scenario, it still doesn’t get you anywhere, because the alternative – that God wrote the Torah, is even more implausible, so all you are doing is replacing an implausible scenario with an even more implausible scenario.

This is where we started to disagree. RJM maintains that God writing the Torah is not inherently implausible. We then got into a whole discussion about plausibility, probability, a priori probability etc etc. We didn’t get anywhere. Ultimately I maintain that God writing a book is not an everyday occurrence, it is highly unusual and improbable, and you would need rock solid evidence to make such a claim. RJM disagrees, but I can’t understand why. (No doubt he will enlighten us in the comments).

Next I explained that if there were no other questions on the Torah, then I might agree that TMS could be plausible. But since his arguments were weak anyway, and since there are a whole host of other issues with TMS, including technical issues, historical issues, science issues etc etc, the whole thing just doesn’t get off the ground.

RJM of course maintains that all of these issues have answers. I argued that true, they do, but the answers are never as good as the questions, and the only reason people accept the answers is because they are biased towards believing TMS. Nobody outside the faith would find these answers convincing. So in summary, I believe RJM has a weak argument to begin with, which then totally fails once you start looking at the bigger picture and start thinking about all the other questions.

In addition, since we already know that all religious arguments suffer from a very serious bias/subjective issue, and we have no way of really reaching any consensus, the fact that RJM is an Orthodox Jew arguing that his argument prove the validity of Orthodox Judaism is an inherently non credible position to be in. He counters that this is a little circular, because by definition anyone arguing for OJ will be an OJ. But that’s exactly the problem (and he agreed). This problem is insurmountable, at least for now

In summary:

We both generally agree that religion has a serious credibility problem. We start to disagree when it comes to the arguments for and against TMS. RJM maintains that his initial TMS argument is strong (or at least not weak), and that once we get into all the other questions we will see that they all have reasonable answers. The one question that he admits he doesn’t have a good answer for is the numbers by Yetziat Mitzrayim, as it’s very hard to allegorize that. (This is somewhat ironic, because it was that very same question which caused me to have to abandon my famous Myth/Moshol peshat, leaving me exposed to the attacks of the skeptics).

I maintain that as a subjective biased religious person arguing for his religion he has little credibility to start with. And, even if he wants to claim objectivity, I argue his TMS argument is incredibly weak anyway since myth formation is highly plausible in this case. And furthermore, even if I agree that myth formation is implausible here, TMS is even more implausible, both inherently as a concept, and even more so once you start investigating all the other issues.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, we agreed to start investigating all the other questions. I guess that means that I have to start all over again, from day one.

Next Up: Myth/Moshol Theory!