Folly of Faith, Folly of Reason – Isaac Asimov & Judaism
In this article, I attempt to make a few points: a) Point of view on topics beyond the dimensions that we can observe is based on emotion; b) People tend to illogically ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with their emotion-based postulates, whether they are religious or secular (including the great writer, Isaac Asimov), c) you can’t convince most people of very much at all; d) Judaism, which I believe to be true, recognizes the limits of rationality and faith/emotion and is a mix of the two (in my opinion), and finally, e) choosing rational postulates of what gives the most meaning and pleasure based on examination of the evidence is most rational.
In Asimov’s story, humans make a robot-run outpost in space. One robot decides it’s illogical for humans, who are inferior to robots in so many ways, to have created him. So the robot logically determines that the most advanced thing there, the outpost’s computer, made it and declares “There is no master but the master and I am his prophet” (a satirical take on the Muslim declaration of faith).
You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason- if you pick the proper postulates. We have ours and Cutie has his.”
“Then let’s get at those postulates in a hurry.” Powell sighed wearily.
“That’s where everything falls down. Postulates are based on assumption and adhered to by faith. Nothing in the Universe can shake them. I’m going to bed.”
. . . “But I might as well try – as a matter of principle.”
– “Reason”, Isaac Asimov, 1941 (age 21)
This is exemplary of many arguments we’ve probably all had with someone invested in a different idea. I’ve heard quoted in the name of Rabbi Noach Weinberg (who spent his life reaching out to Jews who learned little about Jewish beliefs), this mentality in many ways actually covers about 90 – 95% of people. There are maybe 5% to 10% of people you can convince of anything substantially different than what they currently believe.
In the story, the humans try to reason with ‘the prophet’, to no avail. Given Asimov’s personal belief (a “humanist Jew”, though an analysis of Asimov’s views is far beyond the scope of this article), it seems he’s attempting to knock various religions, and of course, Decartes. They build a new robot; rebuttal – the parts already existed, made by the master. They show the robot their library proving their knowledge of robot creation; rebuttal – the master wrote them for the humans to believe, but he has the real truth (I’ve read this view from a few Muslims and heard same from a Hindu). Meanwhile, the humans who know the truth decide that they should argue with the robot “on principle” before deciding that it’s best just to let the robot believe what he wants . . . because he’s doing his job (again, akin to Rambam describing Islam to be like a statute which has beauty, but not the fullness of proper belief).
On the other side, it works the other way as well. Try discussing the ludicrous claim in the Bible (jump down to point 3 in the link) written, at least, some time before 200 BCE (the time of Septuagint, and according to tradition, actually, in about 1323 BCE) that Jews will remain small in number, be scattered around the earth, and then return in massive numbers. The latter part could only be confirmed in this century. Other claims, such as mass revelation with a continuous unbroken chain (jump down to the heading, “Judaism” in the link) are just as wild, but yet, we can see the evidence. Yet, how many nihilists suddenly start believing in the Torah’s authenticity?
Another example – While obtaining my undergraduate biology degree, the math behind life beginning as we know it boggled my mind. It is still, to my understanding, very much an unsolved an unreciprocal problem. My genetics professor, who remembered me years later as the only student to discuss G_d during office hours, fully agreed with me on this point . . . it couldn’t happen, but yet he said, “I have faith that it happened because . . . it happened.” I thought that was intellectually honest (if not a tautology). Present someone (intellectually honest) who believes in the authenticity of the Bible with a proof of the age of the universe and he will try and fit it in with his theology . . . present someone (intellectually honest) with incredible mathematical claims for spontaneous generation and development of humans in only a few billion years, and, well . . . he may just admit it’s on “faith”.
“Reason”, as Asimov like to use the term, is “coldly logical.” We examine, we theorize, and we test. Problem: we can’t apply the scientific method to the past or even examine with much certainty whether the law of physics were constant before we started examining them. “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell if you know understanding.” says the Creator to Iyov [Job] (38:4). Those things that we hold as constant, might not be. While we can test and review results without emotion, the postulates we choose and the conclusions we draw from them are emotion-laden. For all we know, every particle within our view is doubling in size every moment in comparison to a much bigger meta-verse and this has some effect that we aren’t comprehending. All that remains constant is – our own postulates. I know why and how I chose mine, or at least, I think I do. I choose those that make the most sense and yield the most pleasure . . . at least, according to my postulates.
Asimov would tell you that you can only act based on reason. I agree. Where I disagree is what he chooses as “reasonable” . . . his “postulates” which are based on emotion. He said in 1982, “Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” That is a very honest self-assessment, but, to me, choosing based on a feeling and calling it a “waste of time” to examine what contradicts his feeling seems irrational. (I am not, however, passing judgment on Asimov as a whole of which I do not know nearly enough information . . . just this quote.)
Immanuel Kant argued that if there is a G_d, this is irrelevant because why would an infinite G_d care about us? Why would it relate to us? We would be nothing. How could we ever approach or understand something so much greater than ourselves? We have no faculties to do so, so why bother? This is very close to what Asimov argues and what’s argued in G_d 2.0 (a physicist who does believe in a guiding, omniscient creator or force of some kind). It is also almost identical to the argument of Bildad in sefer Iyov [Job] (though he clearly still believes in the positive in G_d’s existence), and I’ve heard it from atheists. One answer is here, in this guest blog post.
The best refutation that I’ve heard to the unattainable ability to reach an infinite Creator who might not even care about us comes from R’Shimson Dovid Pincus. He doesn’t refer to Kant, et al, by name, but he posits like this – if you posit that the Creator doesn’t care what we do or that we can’t relate to the Creator, then you are positing a weak creator. Your conception of “infinite” is lacking. Imagine a bird removing a speck of dust from a mountain . . . one speck at a time, going up and down for a trillion years until the mountain is gone. That’s not infinite and that’s only in one dimension. Infinite in all directions and dimensions is much more than that in time, space, and so forth. This infinite Creator who creates the universe would be . . . infinite. There would be a path to understanding and growing closer to and knowing, at least, aspects of the Creator as we come closer and closer and closer (or farther and farther away). We can relate to the Creator and the way we do that is with our intellect and our conversations (e.g. meditation or prayer) to the Creator. We can manipulate the world in this manner, but this is verifiable only for each individual who does so. I can’t know the sincerity of your thoughts or the level of your arrogance versus humility in your heart. This is explained further below.
This heading, even more so than the above headings, could be written in volumes. I’m not a major talmud chochim [scholar], but I have come across two sources i find poignant. First, on that “cold logical reason” that Asimov describes. The Gemora [Talmud] speaks about the famous case of King Solomon judging that a baby should be split in two. The real mother would rather the baby go to the other woman, than see her own child die (It’s quite a fascinating section of Gemora, covering many angles, but for brevity, I quote only a small portion):
The king answered and said, “Give her the living child . . . she is his mother.” How did he know? Maybe, she had been acting craftily? It was a bas kol [heavenly voice] that came forth and said, “She is his mother.” – Makkos 32b
A few points here: Jews are known for questioning everything. Most of us, secular or religious, are big on reason. I’m pretty sure this is where it comes from – even on something such as the great wisdom of Solomon, the wisest of people, who don’t just take it on faith that he reasoned it out smarter than anyone else, though once someone is has shown themselves to reason better than we, than we’ll probably listen to him whether he be Einstein or a great Rabbi. That is, after all, reasonable.
Maybe, just maybe, the false mother realized ahead of time that he’d make this judgment and planned out, or on the spot, faked what would show that she is the real mother (empathy for the child) and the real mother was psychopath who only cared about winning. It’s a possibility, albeit remote. So the conclusion – it wasn’t just relying on cold logical reasoning. If we did that, we couldn’t move . . . we could never make a decision. There is also trust in the Creator that we will make the right decision, such that here the heavens even told the answer.
This quote is directly on how to have effective prayer.
R’Hanin said in the name of R’Hanina: “If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded” . . . But is this so? has not R’Chiya ben Abba said in the name of R’Yochanon, “If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart” . . . There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfillment of his prayer. R’Hama ben Rav’Hanina said, “If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again.” – Berechos 32b.
For those who who want to test G_d and see that what they request is answered, to quote R’Shimshon Dovid Pinchus, you’re trying to make the infinite Creator into a slave that serves you . . . if you do x, you expect the infinite Creator to do y. If you expect it to work that way, your conception of infinite and your place within it is rather flawed . . . you are leaving room for yourself, not for the Creator. It takes humility and is almost a seeming contradiction. Only if you don’t look for fulfillment, are you answered. That is, humble yourself and realize that it is not you running the show . . . it is the infinite Creator (Hashem, or if you prefer, “G_d”). The more you realize that, and the more you make your will into His will, the more His will becomes your will:
Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. – Pirkei Avos [Ethics of our Fathers] 2:4
Though there is one way in which we’re allowed to test G_d, it still does involve doing “His will” and it’s not easy (follow the link in the sentence). Thus, anyone who says, “If there’s a G_d, he’ll reveal himself to me” or “I don’t see the evidence, therefore there is no G_d” has it backwards. Look smarter, not harder!
The pluralist argument that “there are multiple truths” is correct in some sense … but it all collapses down into an ultimate, underlying truth. As Asimov said in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1988, “I have my faith, you have your faith, and there’s no way in which I can translate my faith to you or vice versa”, that may be true, but it does not discount that cold rationality by itself is deadly as is cold faith. One can go off the deep end with either and do terrible things. Then again, what is “terrible”? For that, we need a mix of both.
Judaism has reason-based faith, but also has trusting in a transmission of a tradition from Sinai so that we can know what is truth and what is not. As a Patent Attorney, there have been numerous people to whom I’ve tried to convince them not to proceed with their ideas … it will never work and it’s a waste of money. I convince few of them of anything but my honestly (and then end up making more money, somewhat akin to the quote above from the Talmud where if you don’t expect to get it, then that’s when you do). The exception was a lady who asked her Rebbe his opinion . . . that was bad for business. Yet, that’s how we make our decisions as Jews. We are rational but we trust in the chain since Sinai which tells what is rational and we can test via our personal experience and humility. Even further, it then becomes logical and reasonable that we do not proselytize others who do not have the same transmission. How can we?
I hope I have done the topic some justice. While I have also tried to be fair, my own bias, like that of any author, cannot be entirely masked. Feel free to comment.