Sunday, August 20, 2017

Homo Deus and Ontological Naturalism

A fundamental concept in understanding the relationship between religion and science is the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. Methodological naturalism means that one operates as if there is no supernatural. Ontological naturalism is the actual belief that there really is nothing outside of nature. Methodological rationalist fields such as science and history must operate according to methodological naturalism for the simple reason that beings like God, while they may exist, cannot be analyzed using such methods. Now it is important to realize that this is not atheism or some kind of trick to smuggle in atheism. On the contrary, methodological naturalism stands as a major stumbling block to atheism as it requires us to acknowledge that science is totally inadequate for directly telling us if there is a God or not.

This is not mere theist apologetics. There is often incredible value to analytical statements that are not actually true but help us understand a field. A great example of this is the Smithian Man (Homo Economicus). Contrary to stock criticisms of economics, no economist, not even Adam Smith, actually believes that there are such super-rational and all knowing humans such as Smithian Men. That being said, imagining that such a being exists and asking how he might respond to particular situations has proven to be a productive starting point for economics.

To be clear, science may play an indirect role in promoting atheism. A universe in which the methodological naturalism of science did not offer adequate explanations for observable phenomenon (imagine if there really was something in biology that was irreducibly complex) would have a lot more theists. By contrast, if methodological naturalism really allowed us to understand everything about nature, leaving no more questions, then atheists would have good ground to argue that methodological naturalism offers powerful reasons for taking the philosophical position of ontological naturalism. God would then follow fairies as a being that we have no reason to hypothesize about and come to ignore.

Keep this in mind and you can dismiss most polemics from either the theist or atheist sides as nonsense. This brings me to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In most respects, this is an insightful book if it were not marred by the author's willingness to engage in crude atheist polemics that casually jump between methodological and ontological naturalism.

According to Harari, evolution refutes the existence of the soul. Evolution is a gradual step-by-step process while the soul, for some reason, must be indivisible.

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the ideas that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. ... Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

... the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.

You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? ... biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. (pg. 104-06.)

It should be noted that if we are to take Harari seriously, we should reject the foundation of classical liberalism that individuals exist. We all might just be soulless byproducts of evolution but I would hope our collections of DNA and cells can count as distinct persons with rights. It is certainly not the place of science to say otherwise. As for the soul, any person of faith, who is already comfortable with the notion of evolution should also be open to the idea that souls might exist on some kind of continuum between animals and the divine. Alternatively, why not imagine that some kind of Adam with a soul arose at some point in history born to philosophical zombie parents. Like most religious people, I treat the soul as a black box and do not have strong opinions one way or another about its precise nature (beyond rejecting on monotheist grounds the notion that the soul can, in any way, be a part of God). The idea that science should have some kind of opinion on the matter strikes me as a bad joke on par with creation science.

The bad theology and even worse science continue with Harari attempting to prove that God does not disapprove of homosexuality. Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon. We are offered the example of the Donation of Constantine, which was used to make the religious claim that the Church was the sovereign authority over Western Europe. In the fifteenth-century, Lorenzo Valla, using historical scholarship and linguistic analysis, demonstrated that this document was a medieval forgery. So, according to Harari, Valla used science to refute a religious claim. Of course, neither history nor linguistics are sciences and their claims are far more tentative. Even if one accepts, as I do, that the Donation was a forgery. This is a relatively minor blow against a belief system that was likely based upon the normative position that the Church should have sovereign power. So some anonymous scribe had Constantine say words that are spiritual facts that he clearly believed in. Why should this affect anyone's simple faith in the Church's supremacy?

Harari applies this same logic to homosexuality. The ethical position that humans should obey God hides the "factual" claim that, 3,000 years ago, God wrote a book denouncing homosexuality, leading to the practical guideline that humans should not practice homosexuality. Harari then brings out the "science" of Bible criticism to demonstrate that this opposition to homosexuality is the product of priests and rabbis rather than the almighty. Harari ends with the retort that: "If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies, and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion." (pg. 196.)

Textual criticism is not a science and any conclusions it comes to are going to be highly tentative (like any study of ancient history). Science and textual criticism can tell us nothing about the mind of God whether, assuming he was inclined to write a book, he might write the book at once while making it look like it was assembled over a period of time. Alternatively, divine providence might have manifested itself through a historical process of bringing together and redacting different documents. Taking this logic a step further, the history of religion itself might plausibly be a divine revelation allowing man to evolve into something more godly. Whether such spiritually enlightened beings will allow gay marriage or hunt gays for sport is something beyond the boundaries of science.

The problem of how a creator God can actually care about human beings at all let alone their ritual practices (whether gay sex or pig eating) has haunted monotheism from the beginning. Much like the problem of evil, science has been able to add little to what was already a serious problem. Keep in mind that, contrary to the Whig nonsense about there being a Copernican revolution to teach man that he was not the center of the universe, pre-modern Judeo-Christian Islamic theology already taught that man was not that important in the scheme of things. If several thousand years of theology has not made religious fundamentalists, whether in Uganda or in the Bible Belt, cautious about drawing straight lines between God's will and public policy, they are unlikely to listen to scientists.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Mises Institute as a Religion: A Heretical Libertarian's Response

Recently, there has been some controversy over an essay by Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute over his use of the term "blood and soil." This term has Nazi associations though I do not think anyone is actually accusing the Mises Institute of being a Nazi or otherwise white supremacist organization. I would even be open to a charitable reading of Deist as describing the reality on the ground of people being concerned with blood and soil if it were not for the fact that Deist is an exercise in totally uncharitable readings of other libertarians. What is certainly a real issue, particularly in this age of Trump, is a willingness of even elements within the libertarian movement to tolerate bigotry. This is the inheritance of a mistaken Rothbardian strategy that imagines that white men angry over desegregation and immigration are going to, somehow, turn into friends of the free market and of liberty.

I would like to call attention to another issue in the essay. At the very beginning of the piece, Deist states:  

Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

This is followed by an attack on libertarians for falling into the "modernity trap" and imagining that technology might render government obsolete. To my mind, this sounds as if the Mises Institue is now treating the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as religious holy texts, "capital T truths" that must be submitted to without question. 

The essential features of a canonized religious text are that one cannot disagree with it and it must be viewed as essential to being part of the group. This serves to draw a line to establish who is a true believer in the group. For example, I consider Jesus to be a great Jewish teacher. What makes me not a Christian is that, despite my high opinion of Jesus, he does not play an essential role in my relationship with God. This renders the entire New Testament to be of historical and spiritual interest but ultimately of marginal value. One can be a good Jew and certainly a good monotheist without ever reading it. In a sense, I am worse than a heretic. It is not as if I actively reject Christianity as much as I am indifferent to it. Raised as a Jew, I never developed any emotional attachment to Christian ritual nor did I ever develop a deep-seated psychological fear of burning in Hell for all eternity for rejecting it. (Haredi Hell, on the other hand, does keep me up at night.) 

As with Christianity, I would argue that Chabad, at this point, should be viewed as a separate religion from Judaism. Chabad views its texts, such as Tanya and the sichas of the late rebbe, not just as one legitimate interpretation of Judaism among many but as the True Judaism. Without the teachings of Chabad Chassidus, one cannot be a truly "complete" Jew. 

To be clear, as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew, I do not completely reject the notion of religious texts. It is important to draw lines and establish signaling devices to decide who is in and who is out. I am not a fundamentalist and my relationship to my God and my holy books is one more of arguing than submission. That being said, just as Christians are right to reject me as a Christian for my indifference to the New Testament, I am justified in rejecting, as a theological Jew (distinct from a biological/halakhic Jew), any person who is indifferent to the Talmud and the Bible. (Like Chabad, Karaite Judaism should be seen as a related but still distinct religion from Judaism.)      

One of the problems with canonized texts and authors, in the most fanatical sense, is that, because they cannot be argued with, one can never develop a mature relationship with them and never learn from them. For example, I can learn from Plato and Aristotle because I have never been tempted to treat them as articles of faith. There has never been any need to reinterpret them to suit my ideological preferences as I have always felt willing to say that I believed that they were wrong. Ironically, this has made it possible, over time, for me to become convinced of their wisdom. I admit that, in recent years, I have gained much respect for Aristotelian virtue ethics for its ability to deal with real human beings instead of theoretical abstractions.   

Like the Gospels, Deist offers us "good news." The truths of liberty have been revealed to us. Our job is now simply to spread these truths through the entire world. This is a simple task because there is now no need to argue with anyone. The Truth of Mises and Rothbard is so obvious that only the satanically perverse would ever question it. Hence, like a good Calvinist missionary, the purpose of spreading the libertarian gospel is not to actually argue with anyone and refute their beliefs but to demonstrate that opponents actively hate the truth and were never worth arguing with from the beginning.   

From the perspective of the Mises Institute, is it possible to be a good libertarian without an understanding of Mises? Speaking for myself, I came to libertarianism largely through the questioning of my own Republican orthodoxies. Hence, I was a libertarian before I read much of libertarian thought. It was because I was a libertarian that I discovered Milton Friedman's Free to Choose as a better articulation of what I was already trying to say and then later I became aware that there was something called Austrian economics. I confess that I only read Atlas Shrugged after several years of being a libertarian. I think that this was a healthy path to liberty, one that preserved my intellectual honesty from factional politics. I do not claim to be an expert on libertarianism; I am a mere student of liberty, humbly trying to put things together for myself. 

With the Mises Institute, particularly someone like Tom Woods, I can never escape having a clearer sense of how right they believe they are than what they are right about. It is like they have received a revelation that seems to boil down to them having received a revelation, its content being secondary to the fact that it is a revelation and they are right. Thus, revelation becomes, not a book to be read, but a heavy object to beat people over the head with and claim moral supremacy over.         

Mises was never Euclid, let alone Jesus. I have a hard time believing that anyone could read through a thousand pages of Human Action, understand it, and, in good faith, claim to agree with all of it. Furthermore, even Mises himself, if he were alive today, would, despite his genius, face a challenge in how to apply his own work. How much more so with us little minds. We who cannot comprehend every word of this brilliant mind and who might even find ourselves disagreeing with him and, thus, have no recourse but to cobble together our own understandings of liberty. Not only that but we must then face the very hard task of applying our theories of liberty to a rapidly changing world. Let us face it, our arguments could be logically unassailable and people will still ignore us if we cannot show, in concrete terms, how liberty will make their lives better. 

I support a big tent libertarianism. If you are acting in good faith to decrease the power of government and increase the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies then welcome to the club. As for the details, welcome to the debate, the most fun part of being a libertarian. If you wish to be an effective participant in this debate, I can suggest a reading list of material to get you up to speed. That being said, we are not a religion with sacred texts that you must accept. On the contrary, we invite you to create your own path to liberty. 


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camp Chimerical Anti-Christianity: Facing the Consequences

A few years ago, for the fast day of Tisha B'Av, I wrote a hard-hitting post, raising some uncomfortable questions about the Jewish community. As that is one of my personal favorites, I decided to follow it up for this Tisha B'Av. My purpose is not to attack anyone and, for that reason, I have avoided names. I hope that my ambiguous feelings about my camping experience rather than hatred should be clear. As is often the case with me, I am more interested in asking questions that I find myself struggling with than in offering solutions.    

When I attended Haredi summer camps, I once played a villainous Spanish Inquisitor in a play. While waving a torch, I gave a speech about Judas Iscariot as the model traitorous Jew, which included a joke reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well. I remember watching another play in which a priest murders the prince, who started asking difficult theological questions regarding Judaism, in order to set the Jews up for a blood libel. Both performances can be seen as anti-Christian. The difference between them is that while I expressed a "rational" opposition to Christianity, the other person made a chimerical assertion. Spanish inquisitors are historical facts. The figure of Judas did play an important role in medieval Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric. Even Christians would agree with me on this. By contrast, there is no evidence of Christian priests murdering Christian children in order to frame Jews just as there is no evidence of Jews murdering Christians for their blood. Christians can hope to negotiate with someone possessing a legitimate negative impression of historical Christians. Such a person can be convinced that modern day Christians are different and not a threat. A person with a chimerical opposition to Christianity will never be convinced that Christians are not a threat even by the evidence of his own eyes as he already believes things about them that he never had any evidence to begin with. Such a person will inevitably sink into the black hole of conspiracy theories to the point where the lack of evidence for his beliefs will simply prove to him that there is a vast cover-up.

In regards to this story of a priest murdering a Christian to cover up the fact that Christianity is false, I am reminded of Israel Yuval's argument that Christians came to believe in the blood libel because they saw Jews kill their own children during the Crusades. If Jews would kill their own children so that they do not fall into the hands of Christians, might Jewish mothers poison their children's kugel if they thought they were attracted to Christianity? If Jews hated Christianity this much, surely Jews would gladly murder Christian children. Thus, Christians have no choice but to kill Jews in self-defense. Similarly, it would be reasonable for impressionable Jewish children in the audience, like myself, to conclude that if priests would kill Christian children to stop them from converting to Judaism, they would gladly kill Jewish children. The logical conclusion from this would be that, if we ever found ourselves in a position of power, we should kill Christians.

Let me be clear, this play about a murderous priest was in no way exceptional in how Christianity was portrayed at this Haredi camp. One of my favorite rebbes used to tell stories with his stock villain, "Father Shmutz" (dirt). When priests were not trying to start blood libels, they kidnapped Jewish children and held them in secret monasteries to try to convert them. In case you were wondering if this was just a matter of some overzealous teachers, the head-counselor of this camp used to have a radio show, "Children's Stories of Inspiration." In addition to blatantly idolatrous stories that endorsed human sacrifices to angels and a Satan capable of acting independently of God, one of his stories involved a Father Francois murdering a Christian child in order to start a blood libel. His plan was thwarted when he was forced to take hold of the hand of the dead victim, who then refused to let go.

Installing the campers with a visceral hatred of Christianity as a religion and a fear of Christians as people were part of a conscious top-down effort. I doubt the camp administration wanted us to actually go out and harm any Christians. That being said, their jobs depended on demonstrating to parents that their children were being protected from outside "negative" influences. In an exercise of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the fact that these administrators were, ever so slightly, putting every Jew on the planet in danger clearly took a back seat.

What are the consequences of this kind of education? When the Passion movie came out, I told my father that I could not call it anti-Semitic for the simple reason that its portrayal of Jews was not worse than the portrayal of Christians that I was regularly fed in camp. My father, the assistant-head counselor of that camp, agreed with me. On a more serious note, consider the role played by Islamist schools in installing a pathological hatred of Jews, directly leading to Jews dying in terrorist attacks.


It is clear to me that not considering the children in this video and certainly their teachers as legitimate military targets (the kids are even in uniform and practicing military maneuvers) will lead to dead Jews. The problem is that any non-Jew can respond that Jews also indoctrinate their kids to hate and I have simply too much personal experience to point-blank deny that fact. So the administrators of my camp have real Jewish blood on their hands. Their actions have made it harder to form the necessary alliances needed to fight Islamic terrorism and save Jewish lives.

Now it needs to be said, that the people I am talking about are warm wonderful people that I gained much from. These are not anyone's stereotypes of hate mongers. I loved camp and many of my fondest memories come from there.  Coincidently, the staff member who played the murderous priest later became my tenth grade English teacher at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and taught me Julius Caesar (he was even good at his job). At the time, I did not see myself as being indoctrinated to hate and I still have my doubts as to calling this hate. Everything was framed in such a positive and loving way, which may have made it all the more insidious. There was much good to my camp; that being said, beyond the fun times and spiritual growth lay a dark side that needs to be faced.