Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The "First Cause" Bait-and-Switch Scam

Peanuts, (c) Charles M. Schulz, z"l
I've said before that my atheism, in the sense of "active disbelief", relates to the Biblical God. The possibility that there might be a single Creator of the universe however is something I remain "agnostic" about. I simply don't know, and I tend to believe it's rather impossible to know.

Now, some who believe firmly in God as Creator cite the First Cause argument.

(I find this argument unconvincing, for a number of reasons: Who says the "Cause" was sentient - maybe it was some kind of "force"? Also, if there's "one" original intelligence, who says there can't be a dozen, or an infinite number? Further, given the vastness of the universe and how relatively little we know about it, isn't it safer, and more honest, to simply say, "We don't know"? And doesn't the fact that some profess to "know" indicate more than anything their desire to justify an existing religious belief in in a single God/Creator?... I have this in parentheses because I actually don't want to focus on the First Cause argument itself, but rather on what that argument is so often used for.)

Let's assume for the sake of discussion that you accept the First Cause argument and agree that this proves there is in fact a single Creator, "God". Now what? Is that the end of the story? Hardly! Because now that we've got your attention, we're going to pull what's effectively a "bait and switch". Very cleverly, without your even being aware of how it happened, we're going to get you to move from the belief in a Creator to believing in the Biblical God - including all the "stuff" that such a belief entails. Ready? Here's the "elevator pitch" (based on a comment of mine in a prior post):
"The universe didn't come from nothing - clearly it was started by a First Cause, a Creator. Therefore God exists. Are you with me? And this is proven by science - we know now that there was a starting point, a Big Bang. Well, that's exactly what our tradition says: "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth." That same tradition also states that God spoke to Abraham and later to Moses and imparted His eternal instructions. Yes, the very same God! After all, if logic dictates that the universe must have been created by God, then logic also dictates that God didn't create it just for fun - He must have had a plan. Agreed? Now if He has a plan, wouldn't it make sense that He'd want us to know about that plan? Wouldn't He reveal the plan? Okay, well that's what our religion has been saying for thousands of years: Here's the plan! We're His plan. And everything He wants us to do is written right here [points to Bible]. God is perfect, which means the plan - i.e. His commandments - are perfect, which means the Book that describes that plan - the Torah - is also, by definition, perfect. Also perfect is God's love for us. He must love us - otherwise, why else would He have created us? And all God wants is for us to love Him back. How? By having a relationship with Him, by emulating His ways, and by having the great honor of being a partner with the one and only Creator of the Universe, by keeping His commandments and thereby helping His great plan come to fruition."
Whoa, hold on a second while my head stops spinning... Okay, what just happened? We started from a "logical" First Cause argument, and somehow slid (think of a "slimy" surface on which things are prone to slide) into the idea that the Torah is the word of God, and we now need to keep the commandments. Wow - neat trick!

Now, I'm not saying this is the manner that a person would necessarily be convinced of divinity of the Torah. There are all sorts of arguments that may cumulatively come to bear, from the "miracle" of Jewish survival, to the "miracle" of the near-flawless transmission of the Torah text, to the near-impossibility of a mass revelation being "made up", to the Torah's inexplicably knowing there are "exactly" four mammals with only one kosher sign and not the other, to the statistical wonder of the "Torah codes" embedded in the text, and so on. And certainly there are a myriad of emotional reasons (community, connection with individuals, families and rabbis, personal "encounters" with God, miraculously improbable events experienced personally or given over via anecdote, and simply being "told" as much, over and over again in books, classes, etc.) which help to bring a person to the conclusion that Torah must be the absolute Truth. In fact, this is a useful tactic for lulling a person into a state of suggestibility and openness - just exhaust them by giving argument after argument, anecdote after anecdote.

However, the question I have is why even bring up the First Cause argument at all? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the proofs for the Biblical God or the divinity of the Torah! After all, even if "logic" dictates that a Creator (God) must have kick-started the universe, the "First Cause" argument is exactly that - arguing for a "first" action which set everything into motion. It says nothing about any subsequent action taken by the Creator. It says nothing about the "purpose" of Creation. It says nothing about whether the Creator "loves" us or not, whether He has any expectations of us - or whether He's a "He" for that matter! And it certainly says nothing about the "authenticity" or "authoritativeness" or "perfection" or "binding" nature or "divine" nature of a book written/compiled some 2500-3300 years ago that alleges that God spoke to certain individuals and issued a set of commands.

The only reason to bring up the First Cause argument (like we said above about inundating people with words) is to lull listeners into a state of "openness". By having to "concede" to one argument, the listener now has her/his guard down and is expecting that the next things which are stated have equal argumentative, "logical" force (especially when the person incorrectly uses the word "logic" to describe their arguments!). But the truth is, everything subsequent to the First Cause argument is pure speculation, based on what seems "reasonable" to us. There is no "logic" dictating that simply because a text cites the existence of a Creator of the world (again, assuming that is derived by logic) that this text must also be "right" about everything else it says - or indeed anything else it says. And the ideas of "love" and a "plan" are exclusively and transparently human categories, and it's just as (actually, I would say "far more") reasonable to say that what this book chronicles is man creating God in his image, not the other way around.

That is the "bait and switch" of the First Cause argument. So caveat emptor - let the buyer beware!

33 comments:

  1. I've read a lot of statements that imply that a person who believes in God and happens to be Jewish is by definition a believer in the Jewish tradition. There's really no connection whatsoever.

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  2. "And this is proven by science - we know now that there was a starting point, a Big Bang. Well, that's exactly what our tradition says: "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth."

    Forget about the bait and switch. The mistranslation of the first pasuk of Bereshit is incorrect; it's "In the beginning of God's creating heaven & earth" which actually allows for God creating using pre-existing matter (a VERY old philosophical debate.) So any arguments regarding an equivalency between the Big Bang & Genesis are null & void!

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    1. Not to mention, what ever happened to "yehi mayim"? Water is there at the start of creation, with land hidden/submerged deep below. (Which BTW is the opposite of Bereshit 2, where we start off with nothing but bone-dry land - no water whatsoever and thus incapable of growing anything.)

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  3. You think there are people who reason logically from First Cause to no bacon cheeseburgers? Who are these people?

    What little I know about what scientists say about the first few moments of the Big Bang, well, things were pretty crazy back then. I don't know if the ordinary logic of cause and effect would apply back then. Certainly, most of the ordinary rules of nature had broken down, or really, hadn't come into effect yet.

    I read the First Cause business charitably, to say that when it comes to the origin of the universe, we have nothing but fantastic and unverifiable hypotheses to fall back upon, whether we look to religion or science. I don't find G-d to be any more supernatural an explanation for creation than things like multiple universes. Perhaps science will get us to a natural explanation of how we came to be, but I'm not holding my breath. This is not so much "G-d in the gaps" as it is "G-d in the place where science cannot reach."

    But you can't prove G-d's existence from logic or science. Can't be done.

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    1. Individuals don't go from First Cause to no bacon cheeseburgers - but those who want people to stop eating them will often use the First Cause argument as part of the initial "bait".

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  4. I had made many of the same points (and more) in my post http://altercockerjewishatheist.blogspot.com/2014/02/kalam-cosmological-proof-of-god.html

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    1. Thanks for sharing the link. Nicely sourced.

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  5. I think the point is that there must be something Eternal and that the universe and everything in it cannot be eternal since the Eternal is necessarily of a totally different "type" of existence. Once that is established, and we realize that our universe and everything in it is created by this Eternal thing, we can examine the wisdom and benevolence exhibited in the created universe. From there we learn about Him, and we wonder why He created the world, etc. and this means prophecy is necessary for Him to tell us what He wants because He does not need anything, for the Eternal is necessarily infinite, etc. Therefore prophecy is necessary to be found, etc. all this is explained in the shaar yichud of chovos halevavos if you study it very carefully WITH the commentaries.

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    1. Yosef, I'm open to going through Shaar Hayichud like you suggest, but I'll say from the outset: I'm highly wary that it's similar to the "pitch" I gave above (and which you partially mirrored). Yes, there's a certain rational progression to it, but it's by no means "muchrach". Rather, there's a certain "destination" in mind from the outset (i.e. the mesorah picture), and if you're creative enough, you can construct the steps along the way so that they "appear" to only be able to lead you to that one destination. But in reality that's not the case. The sefer after all is called "Chovos Halevavos" - i.e. what the mind "must" think. Again, I see this less in the "muchrach" sense as in the "duty" or "obligation" sense. (Which is how the title is usually translated.)

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    2. I want to correct something I said above... I can see from the beginning of Shaar Hayichud Ch. 3 that "Chovos Halevavos" most likely refers to the duty to use one's intellect and reasoning to try to grasp the concept of God's unity (and other related concepts), not the duty to think a certain way. (Yes, that's certainly a "duty" as well, since to think differently from the accepted beliefs is considered "heresy", but that's not what the title appears to mean.)

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    3. need to read your comments and will get back to you. BTW, i translated the shaar yichud. just put up an update.

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    4. yes. the chovos halevavos holds one's duty is to arrive at certainty on these things. but nevertheless in the introduction he says that this investigation must rest on the foundation of belief in the tradition. the commentaries point out because these are things which need guidance due to their being extremely hard to grasp correctly, and without guidance one will almost certainly err. see the commentaries end of ch.3 http://dafyomireview.com/article.php?docid=398#ch3 the book goes on to show that there must be only one Creator, etc. because this is a necessary condition for something to be eternal, namely, to be an absolute Unity, indestructible, infinite, etc. and necessarily there can be only one such "Being".

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    5. here's a quote from the Pas Lechem commentary on chapter . does this help you? He began with the title: "powerful" because according to our understanding, He existed before everything, since immediately after we grasp that there exists a Creator who created the world from nothing, we will immediately recognize His power, namely, the act of creating something from nothing...After this, when we reflect on the details of creation, and we study them and their parts - we will see signs of His wisdom and we will know that He is wise. Afterwards, we contemplate His providence in governing the world, we will know that He is living and among us always. Understand that all of these descriptions are obligatory and follow one after the other, with the creation of the world as their first sourceHe began with the title: "powerful" because according to our understanding, He existed before everything, since immediately after we grasp that there exists a Creator who created the world from nothing, we will immediately recognize His power, namely, the act of creating something from nothing...After this, when we reflect on the details of creation, and we study them and their parts - we will see signs of His wisdom and we will know that He is wise. Afterwards, we contemplate His providence in governing the world, we will know that He is living and among us always. Understand that all of these descriptions are obligatory and follow one after the other, with the creation of the world as their first source

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    6. Yosef, before I respond, here's how I understand the Pas Lechem's points:

      1. If we agree there's a Creator, then we must say that the Creator has the power to create something from nothing.

      2. If we see the wisdom in the creation, then we must say that the Creator is wise.

      3. If we acknowledge that there is providence governing the world, then we must say that the Creator is living and among us.

      4. Points 1-3 above (a) logically must be the case and (b) also follow logically one from the other.

      Did I get that right?

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    7. 1. if we establish there's a Creator. (agree sounds like faith) 3. I'm not so sure what the Pas Lechem meant by this point. does he mean hashgacha pratit or sinai or just the general signs of His beneficence towards His creations as he goes on to explain in the shaar bechina. not so clear about that.

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    8. > the universe and everything in it cannot be eternal since the Eternal is necessarily of a totally different "type" of existence.

      Why? And why are you capitalizing “eternal?”

      > we realize that our universe and everything in it is created by this Eternal thing

      Even if the cause of the universe is outside itself, is different from it, and is eternal, why would you assume it’s a “thing?”

      > we can examine the wisdom and benevolence exhibited in the created universe.

      Benevolence? To whom? Humans? Most of the universe, even most of our planet, is inhospitable to humans. And humanity’s experience, on the whole, is as much bad as it’s good.

      > this means prophecy is necessary for Him to tell us what He wants

      Even assuming an intelligent Creator, why would you assume that it’s necessary for Him to communicate with us?

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  6. Yosef, first off - nice job on the translation. That's a lot of work you put in! And a great resource to make available online.

    Second, based on your "2:52 AM" comment, I seem to lack the basic prerequisite to conduct this investigation (i.e. learn this sefer), since according to the normative frum perspective I'd be seen as lacking the "foundation of belief in the tradition". So am I then wasting my time? Also, if Chovos Halevavos is essentially a sefer providing "chizuk" to believers, strengthening their avodas Hashem by helping them to understand the intellectual "proofs" of what they already believe, the question (in my mind) is whether the arguments/proofs will truly hold up, or whether R. Bachya is counting on your emunah to help "fill in the gaps". (Will respond to your second comment when I have a chance...)

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  7. if you are an atheist so you have nothing to lose. I'm pretty sure he is referring to people who already have faith in the torah based on the tradition,but are not so strong in their faith that if they hit a difficult point which doesn't make sense to them, they will attribute the error to their faith instead of themselves and may wind up losing out. this is why many gedolim discouraged the way of chakira. It's a dangerous path for one who trusts his views too much. the Marpe Lenefesh commentary says in ch.10 "Marpe Lenefesh: - As we find recorded in books, that most of the early philosophers became insane. And we see even in our generation - those groups which go after their opinions and investigations, either they became crazy or they go out to evil ways.." nevertheless, I personally have found that the study of this gate has catapulted my faith to new levels. but i was already committed due to belief in God due to other factors such as intelligent design, wisdom in the torah and meeting people with clairvoyant people.

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    1. don't mean to say i lacked faith. just that it became more "tangible", more lemaase.

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    2. and just to clarify a bit more, I think the arguments there are true and correct. only that one can find makeshift ways to attack their premises such as saying that an infinite regress is possible or that it is possible that both finite and infinite things can be eternal. my intuition and logic tells methis is impossible, but there is room for erring.

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    3. Yosef, I have to say you piqued my curiosity with the "clairvoyant people" remark. Would you like to elaborate?

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  8. sure. I've seen this a few times. cannot elaborate too much. but things like ability to tell me about other people just by the hebrew name and mother's name. or tell me lots of things about myself such as if any mezuzas are no good or what things i did wrong in my life. he can it see by peering into the name. you have to see it with your own eyes to believe it. I have no doubt whatsoever that it's real. but these people don't advertise and they hate publicity so you kind of have to meet them by word of mouth. another Rabbi i met can read hands. sounds nuts, but there is something to it. i witnessed it. a friend of mine asked Rabbi Yaakov Hillel about him and he said the guy is kosher. "he has a mesora of this". cannot elaborate too much to avoid revealing their identity to the internet public.

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    1. Fascinating and compelling stuff - I know from experience. In fact I once "trained" with a respected mekubal and have a very palpable sense of what you're talking about. The question is whether it isn't all reducible to a combination of psychological suggestibility, pattern-seeking and openness to "powers" on the part of the consumer, and expertise in cold-reading, psychological insight, and confidence/charisma on the part of the mystic/psychic.

      You can see some of these techniques in action here (with hakaras hatov to Derren Brown):
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_pj1NUoOHo
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haP7Ys9ocTk

      When you say you have "no doubt whatsoever that it's real", are you *sure* it isn't attributable to the above? Are you sure that you're different from the millions of others throughout the world, whether connected to other religions, New Age ideas, or just "stam" find their way to a psychic, who speak with equal certainty about the "truth" of their experiences - yet where you might very well dispute their claims?

      There's a magician/skeptic named James Randi who offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal ability, including clairvoyance. It's been decades, and no one has ever successfully claimed the prize. The mekubal I worked with claimed to be able to "sense" tumah, such that he'd be able to tell you which chair to sit in and which not. I'd like to see if he, and someone else who claims the same ability, would be able to identify the same chairs in a controlled experiment. If they could do it to statistical satisfaction, they'd have a cool million to donate to the tzedaka of their choice! But I don't have the nerve to ask him, frankly because I wouldn't want to set anyone up - let alone a decent, caring person like he is - for humiliation.

      Thoughts on this?

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    2. Actually the above "tumah-detection" experiment could be done with just one person. Put out X number of chairs, have a niddah sit in one, and let the mekubal identify which chair it is. Do this several times, and see how many "hits" he gets.

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    3. yes. i'm aware of these prizes. but these people shun publicity. and dont feel any loss since "whatever you're supposed to earn, etc is fixed anyway." i'm 100% sure not a scam. i have a degree in physics so i know how to think. i suspect if you sat down with this guy you'd be convinced within a few minutes.

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    4. Just to know, I'm not talking necessarily about "scam" artists. Unless I have reason to think otherwise, I give people the benefit of the doubt that they're sincere and not trying to put one over on anyone. But I am skeptical about such "readings" being genuinely paranormal.

      Also, I apologize if what I said at all sounded like I was suggesting that you don't know how to think. On the contrary, I can see from the incredible work you've put into the Chovos Halavavos piece what a careful and thorough thinker you are!

      Yes, it may well be that if I sat down with him I'd be convinced. But then I would ask myself - how different is my experience from the thousands upon thousands of intelligent people who walk away from psychics and mediums (cold readings) absolutely flabbergasted, emotional, with tears in their eyes, without a doubt in their mind that this person peered into their soul?

      I for one don't have the confidence to think that I could sit through a similar experience and be the "only" one who's immune to being "wowed" and drawn into a false sense of certainty.

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    5. also it doesnt work like a normal physical sense. he doesn't actively look but rather "receives". as if he has some kind of antenna and sometimes gets this and sometimes that, or sees "mentors". cannot elaborate too much... may have said too much already.

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    6. i hear. it's not for everyone. i find myself attracted to this. perhaps due to general curiosity and desire to understand the world accurately. i know of a chabad lady in LA with such powers. I called her once and just let her talk. she could see into my house in israel. was freaky.

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    7. > he doesn't actively look but rather "receives". as if he has some kind of antenna and sometimes gets this and sometimes that, or sees "mentors".

      All mediums/psychics work this way.

      It's one of the ways they avoid falsification: if a skeptic is in the room, or someone tries to set up an experiment, the psychic can claim that the presence of a non-believer is blocking his reception.

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    8. i would have said the same thing had I not seen it with my own eyes. guy told me things i myself didn't know and which i was able to confirm after. anyways, I probably should have kept my mouth shut.

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    9. how can we reach the LA woman? Would love a reading. Even though I have doubts, I would be very respectful of her.

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  9. BTW, you can't expect a mathematical type proof for the existence of God. by mathematical I mean one with a conclusion which nobody can deny and which no questions can be raised against it. this is brought down in the intro of the chovos halevavos. the commentaries there point out that the subject is simply too complicated and subtle. but you can arrive at something called "nitzuach" or "raya" where one view defeats another due to the losing view having far more questions/difficulties against it. if you ever want to discuss/debate some points on this, email me.

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  10. Here's an excerpt of an audio lecture by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel one of the experts on this phenomena. available at: http://ohr.edu/audio/17Tammuz5766/R.%20Yaakov%20Hillel%20-%201001.mp3
    he says at 46:00 "sometimes some of these people seem to have some sort of power of intuition. they can be quite prophetic. impressively. they can know hidden things. sometimes I've checked it out and I found out they have well organized of obtaining information (they are charlatans) ... but others really have this type of power... (skipping to 51:18) we should not be impressed when we see someone who knows hidden things, if you are interested I can take you to shaar shechem introduce you to a few arabs who do the same thing. there are these types of things. It exists. but that's not what impresses us."

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