Thursday, August 10, 2006

Believing in God IS Kefirah


Warning: This post might cause doubts in people unprepared to think about such matters. Please do not read this post if you are unsure, or if you do not have any doubts. I have no desire to induce doubts in people who are currently doubt-free.

This post first appeared in a similar form on David Guttman’s excellent blog ‘Knowing is Believing’. After having seen some of the recent comments on DovBear regarding God and Kefirah, I thought it might be appropriate to post it here.

There are two popular arguments for God’s existence.

One is the argument from design. The Universe seems so amazingly designed (with or without evolution – no difference) that it’s incomprehensible to the human mind that such a thing just ‘happened’. There must have been a Creator.

The second argument is the ‘first cause’ argument. It comes in a few different forms (first mover, first cause etc), but the basic gist of the argument is that it is incomprehensible that there be an infinite chain of causality (turtles all the way down). So we posit a First Cause, which needed no prior cause. This First Cause is God.

Both these arguments suffer from the same weakness. In the first argument we say since a creator-less designed Universe is just incomprehensible (or inconceivable), there must be a Creator. However a creator-less Creator is equally incomprehensible. The only way out of this is to say that we expect the Universe’s creation to be comprehensible, but we don’t expect God to be comprehensible.

This is a very weak argument, if it’s even an argument at all. The second argument suffers from the same problem, and actually disproves the first too. The second argument says we can’t conceive of an infinite chain, so we posit a first cause. But we equally can’t conceive of a first cause which needed no prior cause, and which exists for infinity. There is no gain there, and calling the first cause ‘God’ doesn’t help either. By the same logic, you could call the infinite chain of causality ‘God’ and be in the same position. So in fact, even if you determine that the Universe is so amazing it must have had a Creator, there’s no reason to posit one Creator any more than positing an infinite chain of Creators. I guess you could apply Occam’s razor, but it’s still very weak.

Many Scientists agree that it’s amazing that we even understand anything about the Universe at all. A recent book on Torah and Science even used this fact as an emunah bolster, to show how we must have been purposely created to understand the Universe we live in. But by the same logic, we can easily see that the origins of the Universe, something far beyond our comprehension, need not be comprehensible at all. And in fact it isn’t, even according to Jewish philosophy. The Rambam is very, very clear that God is utterly and completely incomprehensible.

In addition to all the above problems (which are significant), we have the additional problem that none of these arguments say anything at all about God Himself, except that He was capable of creating a Universe. But is God good or bad? Or mixed? Did He create the Universe with a purpose? Maybe there were many Gods? Maybe God is a hyper-intelligent scientist from another dimension, who created the Universe as a science experiment, and then forgot about it. On a more humorous note, Ben Avuyah once suggested that maybe our Universe was created as a marketing experiment to see if carbon based life-forms like the taste of chicken. They do (but not the Rebbetzin). Again, we apply human concepts to God and say ‘Well, He must have had a purpose, He must be good, He must be intelligent. We are simply creating God in the form of man, because that’s what comes naturally.

The (truly unfortunate) bottom line here is that according to all known current thinking, the God of Judaism is not at all provable by reason. Some might argue that it’s not provable, but it’s a ‘reasonable conclusion’, but by that logic, saying “I don’t know” is equally reasonable, if not more so.

The bottom line? We just don’t know. I truly, madly, deeply wish we did. But we don’t. At least not by reason alone.

At this point, many people will argue that when it comes to God, we have to go beyond reason. We have to get in tune with our inner spirituality, and that will point us to God. I think we can all agree that this does work for many people. Humanity, for whatever reasons, does have this incredible spiritual drive, not to mention capacity for altruism, love and beauty, which are not (yet) well explained by biology or evolution. Of course this doesn’t prove God; it just shows why humans believe in God. But, our inner intuitions are very difficult to ignore, so by and large we follow them.

Are inner intuitions reliable? Well, considering that billions of people believe in conflicting religious claims based largely on inner intuitions, it would seem that statistically at least, they are not. However much or morality and ethics is also based on intuition, and we follow that to a large extent, so it’s hard to argue against intuition. According the naturalists, our intuition has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, certainly not an easy thing to shake off.

Why do I bring this up? Certainly not to try and convince anyone that God doesn’t exist chas vesholom. I believe in God, for the very reasons I just disproved! But I have to admit they are not good reasons. Do I feel God from some sort of inner intuition? Yes! But I have to admit my feelings are unreliable. Do I believe in the Jewish conception of God? Yes! But I have to admit that this is due to indoctrination as much as anything else.

When reason fails, what should we do? It’s very tempting to say ‘let’s move beyond reason’. But of course once you move beyond reason, all dialogue is impossible. Or rather anything is possible. Anything at all. How can we judge what’s possible, what’s real and what’s just fantasy, when we have moved beyond reason? Of course we can’t. We are then in a fantasy world, guided only by our imagination.

Many people, myself in the past included, have ridiculed Kabbalah as ‘inauthentic’, ‘Avodah Zarah’ and ‘fantasy’. But really, much religious thought can be criticized using the same terms. And, even in Kabbalah, there is the concept that the true essence of God, called ‘Ein Sof’ (infinity) is completely incomprehensible, and that we can only understand the sefirot, emanations from God. Ironically, this is not so far from the Rambam, who believed the planets had ‘intelligence’ and ‘emanated’ the Divine Flow in a cascading series down to the Earth. So, making a distinction between much of Kabalah and the rest of religious thought is probably somewhat arbitrary.

Even worse, according to the Rambam, pretty much any conception we have of God is going to be incorrect, and therefore is probably borderline kefirah anyway. I saw recently someone complain that since they had been told as a child not to picture God as an old man with a white beard, instead they pictured Him as some kind of amorphous white cloud or rice pudding or something. Hardly any better. In fact, given the limitations of the human brain, it’s quite impossible to picture the incomprehensible. Try it, you’ll get a headache. All of our conceptions of God are therefore wrong, by definition. They have to be.
Some will say, well of course God doesn’t have a hand, but there is some concept of God which is ‘hand like’. God isn’t merciful as we understand it, but there’s something about God which is ‘merciful like’. No, says the Rambam (and many philosophers too). God is incomparable to human emotions and physicality. There’s nothing ‘like’ about it. This was the major debate between the kabbalists and the rationalists. But of course, neither group really knows, yet both no doubt claim a kabalah miSinai, or similar ruach hakodesh.

Either way, the true fact is that nobody today knows anything about God, unless they have had a personal revelation. Unfortunately statistics show that people claiming personal revelations from God are usually unreliable (at least nowadays). The amount of credibility one gives to ancient accounts of revelation is another matter.

Given all of this, does it make any sense at all to think about God? Well, our religion seems to place a high priority on this. But this is a problem, since in reality we don’t know anything at all about this subject, and most likely can’t ever know.

Still, we try.

Further reading:

I would highly recommend the following books:

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner
Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides by Kenneth Seeskin
Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives by Sanford L. Drob

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