Monday, January 14, 2008

What kind of skeptic are you?

A comment on my last post got me thinking:

There are 2 types of skeptics hanging out in this zone of the blogosphere.



Skeptic type #1:

I only believe what is proven by empirical evidence. There is no logical reason to believe in god or any divine source to Judaism, especially since one can trace the entirely social development of superstitious belief in gods or god in various cultures. Plus, in light of modern science, archeology, and historical research, the divine revelation and many other events related in the Torah could not have happened.

The definition of a rational human being is one who bases belief on observation. I am such a rational being. It would make no sense for me to believe in something intangible like god. That is outside the realm of empiricism and therefore does not exist.

The entire basis of Judaism is riddled with inaccuracies and ancient misconceptions. The Torah is clearly not divine. Therefore, the entire basis of the religion is a myth.



Skeptic type #2:

I believe in God and Torah. It may be that my belief is due only to the fact that I was taught to believe from an early age, yet still, I feel something deep within me that tells me there’s a God and that the Torah has divinity.

However, in light of modern science, archeology, linguistics, and historical research, I realize the Torah, i.e. the 5 books of Moshe, could not have been written by God and the events contained within could not have happened the way they are portrayed. I must accept that, or throw rational analysis out the window.

But I still feel a deep spiritual connection to the Torah and to Hashem. Yes, I know that I have no empirical evidence, but this is another kind of knowing entirely. I KNOW that Hashem exists. I KNOW that the Torah has divine elements, at least as much as the other parts of Tanach do, which even fundamentalists believe were written by people.

So I begin to piece together my Judaism. I look at the documentary hypothesis and see honest human beings cobbling together a document from a combination of prophecies and divine inspirations. I see Ezra presenting this document to the people of Israel and of their building a religion based on it. I see a religion that has evolved but held fast to its basic identity for over 2 millennia. And as I begin to understand more & more how Judaism really came to be, I appreciate its beauty more & more.



I definitely fall under #2. But I certainly respect those who fall under #1 and I understand why so many of them have such a hard time being happy in their relationship with Judaism.

#2 skeptics, if they are successful in reconciling ideas, can have a rich and fulfilling Judaic life.

Where do you fall? Do you think my definitions are faulty? Is there more of a spectrum in between?

18 comments:

  1. I don't think it's as black and white as that (though most things in life aren't). I think I personally fall somewhere in between your two types. I believe in God, because I just can't imagine not. But when it comes to Torah, I am much more skeptical - I think it was probably human-written, though still very important to being a Jew and connecting to our heritage, though due to its human nature, more maleable and for me, easier to take a step back from. But I certainly wouldn't say that I need tight empirical proof in order to believe anything, nor that I am completely rational.

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  2. GGG:

    I also believe it was human written, or at least human compiled. But I think that there was some sort of transmission from God at some point, whether a national revelation (which may have been to just a small tribe in the desert who later mixed with the indigenous Canaanite population) or a continuous revelation through prophecy or ruach hakodesh. The Torah is the compilation of a number of narratives of that revelation, filtered through the concepts, biases and society of the human transcribers. Therefore much of the Torah's concepts have divine origin, (and thus Judaism has a divine basis), though it's certainly a human document.

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  3. I'm the anonymous of the previous post, and I'm definitely a skeptic of type 1.

    However, I think the description of skeptic type 1 ends a paragraph too soon--no matter what the final paragraph would be. Skeptic type 2's description moved on to the "now what?"; it's only fair that Skeptic 1 get the same shot.

    No doubt many type 1s will write their last paragraph as their last paragraph, but it doesn't need to be so. Being a type 1 skeptic doesn't mean that you can't end your description with, "And as I begin to understand more & more how Judaism really came to be, I appreciate its beauty more & more." I know I did.

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  4. There is definitely a spectrum in between these two types and I think I fall somewhere in between. I'm partial to proving things through empirical evidence, but at the same time I feel a connection to OJ. However, even as I feel that connection, I certainly do not KNOW (or even come close to knowing) that Hashem exists or that parts of the Torah are divine. Sometimes I do follow my emotional connection to Judaism more than my logical understanding of it, sometimes I don't.

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  5. i'm fairly new as a reader and commenter on (jewish) blogs and just came across yours. i actually smiled to myself when i read your profile....i could have been describing myself to a T. of course you write better.

    good luck to you and much happiness.

    i am curious, from an haskafah point of view on how you get along with your wife and children, if any??

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  6. Anonymous:

    > However, I think the description of skeptic type 1 ends a paragraph too soon--no matter what the final paragraph would be. Skeptic type 2's description moved on to the "now what?"; it's only fair that Skeptic 1 get the same shot.

    I think that's mainly since I'm a type 2 skeptic, I find it harder to articulate what a type 1 would be thinking. I did my best to think outside the box, but you're right, it's a bit less fleshed out than type 2.

    > No doubt many type 1s will write their last paragraph as their last paragraph, but it doesn't need to be so. Being a type 1 skeptic doesn't mean that you can't end your description with, "And as I begin to understand more & more how Judaism really came to be, I appreciate its beauty more & more." I know I did.

    Good point. People find meaning in their connection to Judaism in many differing approaches.

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  7. OHO:

    > However, even as I feel that connection, I certainly do not KNOW (or even come close to knowing) that Hashem exists

    Truth is, as I said in another post, I only believe in Hashem 99% of the time. I think 100% certainty is unhealthy to one's evolution in their relationship to God.

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  8. David A:

    Thanks for the compliment :-)

    My wife is actually pretty cool with this stuff. She doesn't really read the blog but I usually tell her my ideas. I don't know if she always agrees with me, but she'll happily discuss my ideas in an abstract way.

    As for kids, I figure I'll deal with that when my kids are old enough to think in deeper philosophical terms. The most important thing is to teach them critical thinking and then they can explore ideas on their own.

    I think that the Torah is true symbolically, at least, so there's nothing wrong (and something positive, in fact) in teaching them as if all the stories happened literally. That's the jumping off point and the solid foundation they need. As they grow older they can understand things on a deeper level.

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  9. Yeah, I think most people fall in between, but I object to the supposed rationality of skeptic #1.

    Empiricism is a very limited approach to knowledge and it's simply foolish to dismiss all ideas that exceed it. Those ideas may not be as reliable as empirically demonstrated facts but they are definitely worthy of attention.

    Agnosticism is just theological procrastination.

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  10. "That is outside the realm of empiricism and therefore does not exist."

    So before they saw Neptune by telescope it didn't exist?

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  11. Orthoprax:

    Maybe I didn't articulate it well enough. That's always a more difficult endeavor than articulating one's own beliefs.

    For skeptic #1, I'm thinking of those who reject God's existence because the context in which they were taught to believe has been proven false.

    Joe Skeptic grew up frum. He was taught various things about Hashem. He does not believe in a generic God, he believes in a very specific God, who he calls Hashem. He believes that Hashem brought a great flood, spoke to Avraham, took the Jews out of Egypt and split the red sea, and gave the Torah, exactly as it is written, to Jews on Har Sinai, where the whole nation observed this revelatory event.

    When, because of science, archeology, literary analysis, he is no longer able to believe in Hashem, he doesn't retreat to a more generic God. He was only invested in the specific Hashem-God, and now that there is no evidence to prove the Generic God, he seen no reason to believe in it.

    So you're right. It's not just empiricism, but rather empiricism along with the debunking of his basis for belief in his version of God in the first place.

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  12. >> "That is outside the realm of empiricism and therefore does not exist."

    > So before they saw Neptune by telescope it didn't exist?

    That's a poor analogy. Other planets were known to exist. It was a reasonable to assume that other planets might yet be found, and finding Neptune didn't prove something unprecedented.

    Furthermore, no one would posit the existence of Neptune based on no evidence and knowing that such evidence would never appear.

    In short, it was reasonable to posit the idea of a planet that had not yet been found, and no gravitational anomalies pointed to yet, since other planets existed and it was not outside the experience of humans.

    But someone claiming that a giant invisible ghost planet the size of the sun, producing no effects that could ever be measured, inhabited by millions of clones of Dweezil Zappa was orbiting the sun right next to the earth would be laughed out of town by all rational people.

    God is entirely outside the realm of empiricism, now and for the future.

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  13. YH,

    "That's a poor analogy. Other planets were known to exist. It was a reasonable to assume that other planets might yet be found, and finding Neptune didn't prove something unprecedented."

    It may have been perfectly reasonable and also perfectly wrong. The point is that it is a fallacy to limit oneself to only what has been empirically identified.

    Then when it comes to a theory on life, which is really where religion matters most, someone who truly limited themselves to empiricism would find nearly all of their actions unjustified and would be logically forced into some sort of inactive stasis. How can you empirically justify human existence? You are inevitably lead to beliefs and values that have little to do with empiricism.

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  14. There's other types of positions but I think you've got two prominent "modal peaks" depicted there. I'm definitely in type 2 bu the weird thing is I wasn't raised with Judaism. Yet I have felt (from the very first inklings to the very moment) a rightness and a fascination with it that Catholicism never held even a glimmer of.

    Of course, there are type (1) explanations for this phenomena (laughs). But thank you for focusing my awareness on the less rational dimension of my involvement with Judaism. But somehow, much as I loathe CS Lewis, he did make a relevant comment: trying to see through illusions is great, but ultimately, if you see through everything you see nothing because nothing reflects back to your eyes. As Rav Soloveitchik puts it, just because what cannot be clearly descibed cannot be clearly described does not innately and proveably make such "unquantifiables" irrelevant.

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  15. Orthoprax:

    If you look at the original post, I identified myself as the type of skeptic that DOESN'T limit oneself to empiricism.

    However, my point about belief in God remains. I am a theist, but I don't ever expect God's existence to be empirically proven, therefore, I view that belief as outside of the realm of empiricism.

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  16. Hi Kendra,

    Nice to see you here - I've enjoyed reading your comments in the past on XGH :-)

    I like the Rav Soloveitchik reference. Is that an exact quote? Can you let me know where he wrote that?

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  17. YH,

    I know. I didn't mean "you" as meaning you personally. The generic "you."

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  18. Great post, and really glad I found this blog...a question; isn't it possible to see Hashem within human-made decisions and constructs? That is to say, no matter where every single word from the Torah comes from, isn't it of G-d, since it is of humanity?

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