Friday, June 03, 2005

On Bad Reasoning and "Proofs" to the Torah

Someone pointed me to a site called HaDibrot. There is a section on this site concerning Judaism and Science. Since this is a topic that interests me, I decided to take a look.

Oy vey.

I sampled a few articles and here is what I found.

In the article entitled Flat or Round, Rabbi Zamir Cohen tries to prove that Jewish sages were light-years ahead of their non-Jewish contemporaries with regard to science. The example in this article is whether the earth is flat or round. He starts by stating some of the popular mythologies of the ancients (the world was flat, on the backs of whales or elephants [has he been reading Terry Pratchett?], etc.) He then goes on to state that some ancient Greeks made the claim that the earth was round but that they were largely ignored until Copernicus.

He writes:

Around 1514 a Spanish atronomer named Copernicus wrote a small book called the Little Commentary. In it he maintained that the earth is round and rotating. Influenced by Copernicus’ ideas, Columbus attempted to find a westward route from Portugal to Asia, in order to shorten the lengthy eastward route pursued at that time.

Never mind the fact that Columbus died in 1506. Columbus already knew the world was round before Copernicus. That was the whole point of his trip - to prove that it could be done (side point: Columbus had no idea of the size of the world. He badly underestimated it. Had the Americas not been there, he and his crew would have starved to death long before reaching the Orient). No intellectuals in Columbus' time seriously doubted that the world was round. The people who thought the world was flat at that time were the ignorant masses - the type who believe that aliens are currently abducting people and performing experiments on them in their ships.

He then goes on to state that (of course) Judaism had it right all along. To prove it, he quotes the Zohar (claiming that the Zohar is 2000 years old - yet another area to argue on). Of course, the fact that the Greeks knew it even before the Zohar was supposedly written conveniently gets forgotten between the first paragraph and the last one.

In another article, titled Don't Buy A Forgery, El Hamekorot presents an article on the accuracy of the Jewish Calendar. First, he (rightly) mentions the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar. This inaccuracy, of course, led Pope Gregory XIII to establish the Gregorian calendar. Of course, while the Gregorian calendar is a vast improvement over the Julian, it, too, is not perfect and needs adjustments of a second or two from time to time.

He then goes on to describe the accuracy of the Jewish calendar. He states that the famous Gemara in Rosh HaShanna that the lunar month is 29.5 days and 793/1080 hours long. Of course, Mr. Hamekorot conviently leaves out the fact that the Jewish calendar *does* undergo calendrical drift and that it has drifted about 6 days or so in the last thousand years.

The next article I perused was titled The Atmosphere: A Perfect Balance by somebody with the pen name Arachim. In it, he (?) goes on to show that the world had to be created by an Intellegent Being because there is just enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support life. If there was less we wouldn't be able to exist and if there was more, fires would have devestated the planet long ago.

Setting aside the factuality of his claims as to whether or not more or less oxygen in the atmosphere would have that effect, there is the simple fact that this proof is no proof at all. All it proves is that (a) God created the world OR (b) it just happened that way and the proof of it is that we exist.

In Did God Speak On Mount Sinai? an anonymous author presents the familiar "proof" of the histirocity of the Sinatic revelation by the fact that there were many people there. He states:

On this basis, let us examine the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai — the most widely witnessed event of all times. This event was witnessed by six million people who described it to those of their children who were born after the event. These children in turn passed that information to their progeny in a direct, unbroken chain that stretches until our times.

Firstly, I'd argue with his assertion that the Giving of the Torah was the most widely witnessed event of all times. I'm pretty sure that every Superbowl for the last thirty years had more than six million viewers.

While we're at it, where did he come up with the six million number? Does the author really think that for every male between 20 and 60 there were *nine* others at Mount Sinai? I think even two million is pushing it, but six?

In any event, this proof is no proof anyway. Christian mythology states that the dead came walking out of their graves when Jesus entered Jerusalem. That was certainly witnessed by many people. The fall of Troy was certainly witnessed by many, many people - should we believe that the Greek gods were involved in that affair (if it even happened at all)? In short, there are any number of legends in the world that state that they were witnessed by large groups of people. While it may certainly be a point in thier favor over the claim of a lone revelation (such as Gabriel's appearing to Mohammed in Islam or Jesus' rising from the tomb in Christianity), it certainly isn't any form of "proof."

Personally, I've seen any number of "proofs" to the veracity of the Torah. And each time I see such a "proof" it inevitably falls flat. Personally, I think that trying to offer "proofs" to the Torah really just misses the point anyway. I don't keep Shabbos because I'm convinced the world was created in six 24-hour days and that God was tuckered out so He took a nap on the seventh. I don't keep kosher because I have "proof" that God doesn't want us to get trichinosis. I keep Shabbos because I believe God commanded it, and because I believe it is beneficial to have a day apart from the others. I keep kashrus because I believe that God commanded us to. I don't keep the mitzvos because I think the rabbis were scientifically ahead of everyone else... I keep them because I believe that God commanded us to and because I believe that they are beneficial to me.

Of course, the key word here is "believe." The word implies knowledge without proof. If one is going to believe, then one should do so without proofs, especially bad ones.

The Wolf


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In my opinion so-called proofs are potentially counterproductive because they are so weak.That said, there is a sort of person for whom such proofs are like a shot in the arm of emunah juice and I guess people need inspiration.

PsychoToddler said...

I believe it was Douglas Adams who said that if you could prove G-d exists then He would suddenly cease to exist because proof denies faith and without faith He is nothing.

That may be ok for Douglas Adams, but Judaism was never a religion about blind faith. There are many miracles reported in the Torah that occur in front of large audiences. The fact that we are so temporaly removed from those miracles doesn't mean they never occurred. I'm sure Matan Torah was not an abstract thing to the people who entered Israel in the time of Joshua, or the Judges, or even the early Kings.

We can't imagine a retained memory that stretches over 3000 years. But I still think it's amazing that people can trace the Kahuna back that far.

"tuckered out"--I like that!

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"There are many miracles reported in the Torah that occur in front of large audiences. The fact that we are so temporaly removed from those miracles doesn't mean they never occurred."

Of course not, but they aren't proof for us. If 600,000 saw them then they had proof. We didn't see them.

Anonymous said...

This is the Aish Hatorah derech - "proving" God and Torah, which has culminated in the Torah Codes (subsequently de-stressed) and the Arachim project. Unfortunately, much of what they say is really flimsy stuff, but the "wow" factor as presented to new prospects often overwhelms critical thinking. I find that there is much that is compelling on a rational level (the Torah paradigm in explaining history, the basic Kuzari argument), although others may find these arguments wanting.

The big problem, really, is that if one bases one's Yiddishkeith on a proof, then what is left when one finds problems with that proof?

Anonymous said...

Spanish atronomer named Copernicus

When did this happen. Did some invent a time machine, went back in time, and spirited Copernicus out of Poland? And all this while I was napping.

Anonymous said...

BTW, regarding trichinosis: I heard an interesting interview last week on NPR with the anthropologist author of "Pig Perfect" (book about cooking & history of pork). He made a interesting statement that sort of destroys the Reform / secular trichinosis argument for why pork was taboo. (Mentioning Melinda Zeder at the Smithsonian) he said that trichinosis is such a late onset disease that ancient medicine would never have made the connection between eating pork and that disease.

M-n said...

"The word implies knowledge without proof. If one is going to believe, then one should do so without proofs, especially bad ones."

You mean faith:

Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

The problem that arises is which faith do you pick? By its very nature, faith cannot help you choose. No faith has any more reason to be believed than any other. That's why most people just stick with the one they were born into, and why proselytization groups like Aish try to justify their particular faith. They have to answer the question most people never ask: Why this faith instead of that one? They resort to all sorts of bogus chicanery to avoid stating the obvious: Their religion, like every other one that ever was or will be, does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. In fact, since it makes historical claims, what evidence we do have is against it.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you, everyone, for commenting.

You are correct, PT that we don't accept our religion because of blind faith. But, OTOH, I don't think one can empiracally prove God's existence either. So where does that leave us? It leaves us to make up our minds as to what the proper derech is. I personally believe, based on my perception of the universe, that there is a Creator. I think that the universe is simply too wonderous to have come about by chance. Again, I realize that this is not a proof, nor would I try to pass it off as one. It's simply *my* perception. A universe with structures as grand as glactic superclusters which are governed by the same rules as objects as minute as protons, neutrons and electrons - where wonders organic and inorganic can arise as they have - could only have been planned, IMHO, by a Creator. Likewise, I *believe* that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. Again, I wouldn't try to pass off a "proof" to it (unless, of course, I could find some honest-to-goodness proof), it's simply my judgement.

Zal asks a good question, one that I've thought about for quite a while. That's one reason that I dislike these "proofs" so much, especially when they don't really hold up to close scrutiny.

Yosef - You seem to dismiss my comparison without really addressing it.

Even if you discount the Christian claim, I still presented others. What about the fall of Troy? That was said to have been witnessed by thousands who took part in it on both sides of the conflict. I'll simply send the Kuzari's argument back to you then - how did the myth of the Trojan War injected into Greek culture. Surely any Greek person at the time the myth was invented would have said "but my father never mentioned this. How is it?"


Some of what you say is correct. Sometimes, though, one can try to examine the evidence and determine which faith is the correct one. There is a reason that I'm not a Christian - and it's not just because I born Jewish. I've seen the Christian claims, I've conversed with Christians and examined some of the "proofs" and texts involved. And, upon such examination, I rejected them. Not that I seriously considered becoming a Christian, mind you, but I *did* take a look at what there was to try to understand what leads one to the world's largest religion.

While I don't think *any* religion is provable (in the empirical sense), I *do* believe that you can logically compare two or more of them and see if they are internally consistent to some degree.

The Wolf

M-n said...

Would you listen to yourself?? You say you can compare religions, and found Christianity wanting. Yet, when you analyze Judaism's claims, you set arbitrary limits and "ground rules" that prevent any possibility of reaching the conclusion you made about Christianity. That's utterly dishonest, and show you to be Jewish for the very reason you deny: you were born into it. Why else the privileged position of having sacred cow postulates?

Moreover, I seriously doubt that you've ever looked into Judaism's claims. Most frum people have never even read Tanakh from beginning to end, let alone looked into the relevant fields to evaluate the claims. How much Egyptology have you studied to know just how grossly implausible Exodus is? Read any Biblical Archaeology journals? Delved into the etymology, liguistics and development of the Hebrew language? Studied the competing religions of the Ancient Near East? Studied Biblical scholarship outside of Orthodoxy?

I'm sorry to break it to you, but the illusions of frumkeit are only sustainable through ignorance. If you approach the claims of Judaism as an outsider would (which you didn't), you'd find that it's not consistent, or even slightly believable. The upsurge of Orthodoxy is a direct result of an explicit policy to enforce ignorance, especially of the discoveries that led to the (very real) mass exodus of the haskalah.

BrooklynWolf said...

Would you listen to yourself?? You say you can compare religions, and found Christianity wanting. Yet, when you analyze Judaism's claims, you set arbitrary limits and "ground rules" that prevent any possibility of reaching the conclusion you made about Christianity. That's utterly dishonest, and show you to be Jewish for the very reason you deny: you were born into it. Why else the privileged position of having sacred cow postulates?

I think you may have mistaken my point Mis-nagid (or I may not have articulated it clearly). I wasn't saying that I stuck with Judaism because it was provable and that Christianity was inherently unprovable. What I was saying was that Christianity (IMHO) is *internally* inconsistent. I made no claims on how it (or Judaism) stand up to outside claims. I'm well aware that there are those who doubt (or outright deny) the historicity of Jesus. But that's really beside the point for the purposes of the point I wished to make.

Furthermore, I'm more than willing to admit a bias in the matter. Perhaps if I was born a Christian I would not see the flaws in Christianity that I see as a Jew. I can try to overcome the biases as best as I can and try to look at things objectively, but I'd be a fool to outright deny their existence.

To answer your questions, however, no, I haven't checked out many of the sources that you bring. However, I am always eager to learn new things (If I didn't, I wouldn't have started this blog to begin with). I am certainly aware that modern achelogical study puts at doubt some of the Biblical stories, but I haven't had the leisure to fully read up on these matters further. Perhaps I'll start setting aside some more time...

The Wolf

M-n said...

It's funny that you think Judaism is internally consistent, when the Torah itself is rife with contradictions.

You're totally dishonest in your approach to Judaism. Objectivity is totally lacking, and effort is minimal. The Torah's divinity is no more believable than Jesus, and probably less so. If you put as much effort into studying Judaism as you do into following the endless edicts of long-ago rabbis, you'd know that.

I've seen your progression many a time, and experienced a lot of it personally. First, you never think about it. Then you notice that a lot of the ancillary things you were taught are false, but you chalk that up to non-critical bits, or "just one opinion." You say days means eras and the number of soldiers is exaggerated. Then you start reinterpeting Noah to be a local flood, then a moral fable. Then you stop saying Torah was giving on Sinai, but it was from God. Then you say that "something" happened at Sinai, and the Torah reflects that. Then you say that people wrote it, but they were divinely inspired. Then you say that post-that writing, it was corrupted. Then you say that we follow TSBP anyway, and that was divinely inspired. Then you stop trying so hard to deny what your heart sinks to know what's true: it's all made up.

I've seen this little dance at least 15 times in my limited personal experience. If you want to avoid the inevitable slide into reality, you can, of course, just shut your brain off. But if you persist in your investigation of the true history of Judaism, you're bound to make discomfiting discoveries that you'll feel duty-bound to explain away. As they pile up, your resolve to keep fooling yourself will start to erode, and you'll start biting your tongue. Soon enough, your non-mainstream opinions will mark you as a kofer.

Good luck with that.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

" Again, we cannot compare even a claim of a couple thosand people to an event said to be witnessed by an entire nation"

If that's enough for you, great.

BrooklynWolf said...


Maybe. We'll see what happens as time goes on. All I can do is keep asking questions and looking for answers.


The Kuzari principle is *not* proof to the divinity of the Torah. There are so many places that the proof falls through.

1. You state the Torah is true because 600,000 (or millions, actually) of people witnessed it. OK, where's your proof for that?

2. Even if it is proof that we got the Torah on Mt. Sinai, where is the proof that the Torah given on that day, lo, so many years ago, is the same Torah (together with TSBP) that we have today?

3. Why do you discount Christian, Greek and Celtic myths, all of which have their "miracles" occuring in front of thousands? What makes the number 600,000 "magic" that 20,000 or 40,000 witnesses can't verify?

4. The Kuzari principle also does not account for the gradual acceptence of a myth. For example, a man starts a story, not meaning for it to be taken as truth. His son may pass it off as an "out-there" legend. His son may see it as a historical-myth and his son would see it as fact. (Note: I don't mean the word "son" literally -- feel free to add a few generations between the steps - it makes the scenario even more possible).

The Wolf

M-n said...

"All I can do is keep asking questions and looking for answers."

You're not really asking if you won't accept a "no."

BrooklynWolf said...

On the contrary, Mis-nagid, I'm not really asking if I'm going to accept a "blind" no either.

I mentioned earlier that I have *not* studied the sources you mentioned. Even after I look at them, there's no guarantee that I'll accept them either. It has to be thought out and reasoned.

But, yes, I'll admit (as I've done before) that I am starting with a few assumptions - namely that of Torah MiSinai and of God's existence. If you wish to call me intellectually dishonest for starting from that point, I understand your view, even if I don't agree with it.

The Wolf

M-n said...

Ask yourself this: Is there any reasonable set of evidence that would cause you to discard TMS? If not, you're being honest in your inquiry. In fact, why bother? You're just going to choose to believe what you want to anyway.

On, the other hand, if you go in with no sacred cows, you're in for a treat. There's a damn good reason why biblical scholarship is so verboten within the Orthodox world that most frum people don't even know it exists. It chews up faith in TMS like a balsa in a woodchipper.

BrooklynWolf said...

Ask yourself this: Is there any reasonable set of evidence that would cause you to discard TMS?

To be honest, Mis-nagid, I hadn't thought that far ahead. I suppose the best answer I have now (without having given it extensive thought) is "maybe." But (a) it would have to be pretty strong evidence and (b) I don't know if I'm expert enough in the required fields to evaluate the evidence objectively or technically.

The Wolf

M-n said...

"I suppose the best answer I have now (without having given it extensive thought) is 'maybe.'"

You're toast. We can just start the deadpool. If you want to keep your faith, just go back to blissful ignorance.

There are people out there whose faith has survived contact with the accumulated knowledge of the last 200 years, but they're rarities. What they all have in common is that they did not say as you did. They remained commited cultmembers by refusing to consider the possibility that they may be wrong.

Take Gil of Hirhurim. He knows a bit about the topic, but he said, and I quote:

"I will believe even if the evidence contradicts that belief."

That's the only way other than ignorance to believe in Orthodoxy: intellectual dishonesty.

M-n said...

"There are people out there"

Sorry, I meant Orthodox Jewish people.

BrooklynWolf said...

That's OK, Mis-nagid. I think it was understood from the context of your statement.

The "toasted" Wolf (mmmmm...toasted wolf...)

M-n said...

Toasted Wolf with a side of Orthopraxy, coming right up.

BrooklynWolf said...

What I find most interesting about this post is how I'm getting hammered by Mis-nagid for believing and by Yosef for not accepting a "proof" to the Torah... It looks like I can't win unless I take a hard-core position one way or the other... :)

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

I don't get it Mis-nagid. You are obviously a non-believer which is fine with me. But why do you spend so much time on Jblogs? Why do you try (sometimes successfully) to hammer those who believe. Do you believe you have some mission to crush all beliefs of everyone? Do you just have no other place to go? Or do you have some longing (as small as it might be) to talk to other Jews.

On the other hand, I guess you do keep the post interesting at times.

Anonymous said...

it seems that misnagid feels he can influence Wolf but not Gil.

M-n said...

"it seems that misnagid feels he can influence Wolf but not Gil."

Did you read the quote from Gil? How Gil proudly proclaims to have abandoned sense?

"To argue with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead."
--Robert Ingersoll

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you for the comments and the compliment, Peter.

I suppose that religion is highly contentious because people like to believe that their way is *the* right way. And this attitude is prevelant amongst just about every group on earth. *I* certainly believe Judaism is the "correct" religion - if I didn't, I'd be a Christian (or Muslim, or whatever else I felt was the "correct" one). Of course, as you pointed out, Judiasm has a slightly more pluralistic approach to non-subscribers than some other religions, of course, but it, like others, claims to have a monopoly on the "truth."

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

I dont understand.... you dont believe in proofs, yet you are observant?

What else do you have to say about the sinactic revealation?

BrooklynWolf said...

Wow! It's been almost four years since I posted this. I didn't think it would attract any more comments!

In any event, I'm not observant because I have ironclad proof of anything. I *believe* that God created the world, and I believe that He gave us the Torah. But I don't claim to have an ironclad proof. Nor, frankly, do I feel that I need one.

Keep in mind that just because a proof is flawed, that doesn't mean that the underlying thesis is wrong. If someone says to me "Judaism is true because 2+2 = 5" that's a bad proof, but it says nothing about the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of Judaism.

I'm not opposed to proofs, but I have yet to find one that stands up to intellectual scrutiny.

The Wolf