Friday, February 26, 2010

Is Monotheism a Sign of Mental Retardation or Intellectual Superiority?

When one thinks of a religious person these days, they usually think that the religious man possesses a degree of intellectual inferiority, especially since we should be enlightened by things such as technology and Darwinism. The problem with this inaccurate stereotype is with the American misconception of a religious person. Since America’s religious roots can be traced back to Puritans, the two words that come into the typical American mind when describing a religious person are Christian and fundamentalist. The fact that religiosity is associated with Bible-thumping, fundamentalist Christian who reads the Bible literally is a stereotype that needed to be dispelled when the Enlightenment period began. The fact that religious communities were unable to respond to the Enlightenment during its inception is still biting intellectual, rational monotheists in the toches to this very day.

With that in mind, it still begs the question: can one discuss religion, and more specifically, monotheism, intelligibly? The First Commandment in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:2) is to know that G-d exists. If you don’t believe in G-d, who cares about this commandment, and if you do believe in the Torah, why do you need this commandment? Because the underlying message is this: investigate! Knowing G-d exists means that you have done the thorough research, and your proof is beyond all reasonable doubt (this, in contradistinction to beyond a shadow of a doubt, something I will discuss later). Rather than fall back on the argument of “because the Bible told me so,” Jews are commanded to “do their homework.” Maimonides said it was insufficient to just study Torah. For him, to truly understand Torah, one had to study the natural sciences. As an extension, I would also opine that one would need to study other fields such as history, philosophy, sociology, archeology, etc., to get a grasp of reality.  An investigative approach to reality for a religious person seems foreign to many because many Christians fall back on "because the Bible tells me so." 

With the overt intellectual emphasis in Judaism, we now come down to why not only atheism is an irrational belief, but why G-d’s existence is a logical necessity. Atheism is based on the premise that G-d does not exist. For atheists to make such a bold claim, the philosophical burden of proof is on them to prove that G-d does not exist. When referring to G-d, one refers to Infinite Oneness, something that does not exist within time or space.  My question to the atheist is this: how can you prove that an infinite being that transcends all finite borders, physical, spiritual, et al, can actually be disproven by empirical measurements? You can’t! Any attempt to try to disprove G-d’s existence would require the application of measuring G-d, which, by definition, cannot be done.

If the claim for monotheism were solely built on this claim, we would be running into the issue of argumentum ad ignorantiam, which is a logical fallacy that states that a premise is true only because it has not been proven false, or vice versa. The best example of this fallacy would be that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. For purposes of this argument, if I don’t want to merely disprove atheism, but rather show that monotheism has an intellectual basis, I have to go beyond the argument of “atheists can’t disprove G-d, therefore I’m right.” This means if I am to claim that monotheism is correct, the burden of proof now shifts over to me.

Before delving into the analysis, what is worth bringing up is the extent of my proof, i.e., do I have to prove G-d’s existence beyond all reasonable doubt or beyond any shadow of a doubt? I will contend that nothing can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Shadow of a doubt implies no doubt whatsoever. Although atheists and anti-religious people like to use this tier of doubt in attempts to “disprove G-d,” the truth is that nobody uses such a burden of proof in their daily lives. Just a few examples…..

Did your wife poison your food today? Odds are that a marriage doesn’t get that sour, but maybe she’s jealous of your new job, or it’s possible she found out about the affair you’re having on the side. Or it’s possible that you married somebody who is trying to kill you because she has some mental disorder you don’t know about.  There could even be a possibility there is some deadly disease in the food of which you were not aware.

Will the double bypass surgery kill me? Statistically speaking, you’ll come out of that surgery in one piece, possibly feeling better than ever. But there is still a slight change that either the surgical tools aren’t sterile and cause a deadly infection, you unknowingly have a fatal allergic reaction to some anesthetics the doctor gave you, or your doctor ends up killing you because his “degree” is forged and he really is a total quack.

Does the country of France exist? Sure, you’ve heard of people called Frenchmen. You’ve seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower. You even took some time in college to learn this language they call French. But until you’ve been there, how can you know that France is nothing more than conspiracy forged by some intellectual elitists?  And even if you do ever go to France, how are you so certain that you're actually in France?  Are you sure France really exists?

Although there are some instances in which the abnormal occurs, statistically speaking, occurrences, nature, and a myriad of other things follow certain general predictabilities.  Realizing this shifts the burden of proof ever so slightly.  Rather than burden oneself with the unrealistic expectation of proving something reasonable beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's much more tenable to prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.  The question then becomes whether or not we can prove G-d's existence beyond all reasonable doubt, especially since G-d cannot be proven by empirical measurements, i.e., we cannot perceive G-d with our five senses because G-d’s infinite nature transcends the sensory.

Since we cannot use the five senses to prove His existence, we have to proceed with our logical faculties, much like the rabbis of yesteryear had done millennia beforehand. Upon proving this conjecture, I will use logical deduction to prove that ever-so profound question of “How did the universe begin?” I attribute this exceptionally important insight to R. Moshe Zeldman, upon my studying of Derech Hashem by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Upon asking ourselves about primum movens, or the first cause, we have to realize that there are only four possibilities: 1) nothing began the process, 2) something finite created the universe, 3) the universe is eternally old, and 4) an infinite being created the universe.

Let’s see where logic takes us……

1) Nothing began the universe.   Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda challenged this flawed thinking in Duties of the Heart almost a millennium ago: “When we say that something created itself, we have to ask: When did this act take place? Before it came into existence or after it came into existence? If before, there was nothing there, and from nothing, nothing can come. If after, then it doesn’t need to create itself. It’s already there!” This theory defies Newton's Third Law of Motion, not to mention common sense and scientific observation. This disqualifies Option #1 from being a possibility.

2) Something finite created the universe.    It doesn’t matter if you try making some elaborate, convoluted scenario, may it be a micro-universe within a macro-universe, “this is all a dream,” or something based off the movie The Matrix. If something finite did create the universe, the only retort that one can have for this postulation is “what created that?” If more intelligent aliens created our universe, what created those more intelligent aliens? And what created that which created the more intelligent aliens? Needless to say, we can do this ad nauseam and it still doesn’t answer the question of what ultimately was the primum movens. Option #2 is out, which leads us to the latter two options.

3) The universe has no beginning because it is eternally old.    Who is to say that the universe even had a beginning in the first place? After all, we should take this option seriously since many scientists have believed it since the days of Aristotle. Something in modern-day science changed that notion—the Big Bang. What was shocking about the Big Bang Theory, which is no longer a theory, is that it provided incontrovertible evidence that the universe began about ten to fifteen billion years ago. Even without the cosmological proof for a beginning of the universe, how can one prove that an eternal universe is logically flawed?

For argument's sake, let's say that Maimonides met Aristotle one day and as they were walking along, they came across a huge pile of marbles. This pile is so vast that as they look with telescopes in every direction, it seems as if there were no end to the pile.

Aristotle: "I believe that this is an infinitely large pile of marbles."

Maimonides: "Look, I have no idea how many marbles are here, but logically it must be finite. Here's my proof: What would happen, Aristotle, if I removed one marble from the pile? How many marbles would be left now? An infinite number or a finite number?"

Aristotle: "Finite."

Maimonides: "Well, if it's finite now, then what will happen when I put this marble back into the pile? Will the pile go from being finite to infinite? Impossible! Finite-plus-one is just a slightly bigger finite!"

Aristotle: "Okay then, if you remove one marble, I say the pile must still be infinite."

Maimonides: "Well then, you've got an even bigger problem. Because now the pile is infinite -- but it's a little smaller then it was before?! How can an infinite pile change in size? And if I add three more marbles, it will be bigger yet just as infinite? There's only one logical possibility: The pile must be finite. It might be uncountable, but there must be a specific, finite, number of marbles in the pile."

The shorter version of this argument is asking how it’s possible for a universe to be eternally old and simultaneously get older with each day (i.e., the universe is a day older than it was yesterday). Answer: It’s not possible! Therefore, we take out Option #3.

4) An infinite being created the finite universe.  We've already eliminated all other options, so this is what we have left. You know why it's hard to imagine?  Because such a being (i.e. G-d) is beyond our senses, beyond our imagination and ultimately, beyond our grasp.  Even if we cannot grasp G-d, that doesn't exclude us from being able to believe in His existence.  Au contraire!  Precisely because of the aforementioned logical deduction, we must conclude that an infinite being, primal and eternal, had to have created the universe.  Any alternative scenario, as proven above, is beyond the realm of possibility--it is downright impossible.  As to analyzing the nature of G-d, the existence of evil, whether Judaism per se is right, or the extent of G-d's involvment in the world, those are arguments that must be saved for another time.  Even with these quandries in mind, we cannot ignore that G-d's existence is truly a logical necessity.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I find some fault in your theory that people don't use "beyond a shadow of a doubt" in their daily lives. Yes, there is a minimal chance that your wife could poison you or a bypass surgery goes haywire, but the question of France existing rubs me the wrong way. There is so much irrefutable evidence of its existence that puts it beyond a shadow of a doubt. To argue otherwise reminds me of Holocaust deniers - there is so much empirical data, aka proof, that to argue that the Holocaust is a lie is the very height of anti-intellectualism, and worse yet, anti-common sense. Survivor testimony, photographs, Nazi home movies, Allies' liberation footage, and perpetrator confessions are enough to lead to "beyond a shadow of a doubt". If you agree with this, then you must agree that France's existence is also irrefutable because its evidence is similar: people that have visited, postcards stamped with "Paris", movies made in France, live news footage in France, etc. Also the cultural legacy of both, but I will take France as the prime example: French food, music, movies, language...

    Not really arguing whether or not atheism or monotheism is wrong or right (I personally am a monotheist), but there definitely are some things that can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Religion is not one of them, obviously, but France is -- I think Atlantis or Pizarro's El Dorado would have been a better example for you to use for geographical areas that can't be proven to not exist beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    I'd be interested in your thoughts.

    BTW, Comment removed to add this: Regardless of debate, Happy Purim!

  3. Becky, I hope you had a freilichin Purim!

    I think the main issue is your interchangeability between “all reasonable doubt” and “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” When referring to “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” it goes a step further by encompassing unreasonable doubt. Going to the France example: let’s say somebody opines that France is a mythical conspiracy created by cartographers. Obviously, the possibility of this argument having any credence is as close to nil as one can get. However, one could create unreasonable doubt in the process because theoretically, even though you’re sitting there with a bunch of strong evidence proving France’s existence to the point where the odds of you being correct is 99.99999999999999999999999%, there is still a small possibility (albeit miniscule to the extreme) that this quack is right. After all, philosophers have even put our very own human existence into question—so why not that of a nation-state? The fact that an iota of unreasonable doubt about anything or anyone can be created means that “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is not realistic.

    Unreasonable doubt doesn’t dictate most people’s lives, which is why we ignore it. Although there is an infinitesimally small possibility that one’s house can collapse without a cause, one’s medicine can actually kill somebody, the movie “The Matrix” was right about the fact that we’re in a simulated reality while being hooked up to machines that channel our body heat as an energy source for sentient machines, we do not base our lives on such idiotic improbabilities to the point where we become ultra-paranoid about such nonsense. This is why Holocaust deniers or 9-11 Truthers have no credibility. Not only can these people not create any reasonable positive evidence, the reasonable positive evidence overwhelmingly disproves their theories, thereby satisfying the standard of “beyond all reasonable doubt,” which is more than sufficient to base conjectures and postulations.

    The same can go for my argument. You can have some philosopher who tries to argue that G-d is subject to the laws of nature, and he can go through intellectual acrobatics to prove it. I’m sure that in order to create the unreasonable doubt, he would have to argue that G-d is finite. The issue here is that aforementioned infinite being is G-d, which means his argument is logically invalid because he is applying finitude to an infinite being. Could he still create unreasonable doubt? Yes, he can, especially since so many people erroneously equate Jesus (a man, aka a finite being) with G-d (an infinite being). You can even have the Christians jump in and argue [unreasonably, of course] that Jesus was both man and g-d, even though a being cannot simultaneously be finite and infinite. As long as unreasonable doubt exists, you can never prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. But there is plenty that you can prove beyond all reasonable doubt……

  4. Yeah, I blame this on me skipping the paragraph after the France business where you talk about the difference. Also, thanks for ruining the Matrix (just kidding).

    Along with the Finite/Infinite issue, I tend to think of Christianity in terms of Buddhism or Islam - therefore Jesus is the main prophet and founder, so I don't have to argue with people all day. I offended my 7th grade history teacher when asked the difference between the three Western faiths and I said belief in one G-d, instead of her desired answer of "views on Jesus". So I keep out of those arguments for my own sake.

    Historically, I think the Demi-god/Herculean thing made it easier for former Pagans to convert in the Roman empire because it was a familiar trope. So for mass conversion's sake, it was a brilliant business maneuver. For making sense to people who were already Jews, not so much. I feel that this frustration is where much of early Middle Ages to Renaissance Christian Anti-Judaism stems from, ie "Why won't they just convert and see the light like everyone else?" Same with Muslims in the 6th century. What they fail to grasp is that selling a monotheistic/Abrahamic faith to the founders of the original is a hard sell and using Pagan tactics/tropes isn't going to help your case.

    Because the other two Abrahamic faiths have rockin' head honchos, people get confused about Judaism. I've had many people ask me about praying to Moses and stuff like that, and I have to tell them that's not how the game is played. This all reminds me of the scene from The Hebrew Hammer where the school's single Jewish kid walks down the street during Christmas and a store has a sign saying "Monotheists Need Not Apply". I was amused - over a billion others are not, and so it goes :)