Ontologial Reductionism and Invisible Dragons

post by Balofsky · 2012-03-20T02:29:05.142Z · score: -11 (27 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 80 comments

Contents

  Section Three: The author claims that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah, without accounting for Bayes’ rule. 
  Section Four: The author claims that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.        
  Section Five: The author claims that the Torah’s views on legislation, government, history, sexual morals, science, and ethics are outdated, in light of what Yudkowsky describes as human advancement.  
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80 comments

בס"ד

 

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s article, “Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable.” This wasn’t the first time my friend had sent me articles by Yudkowsky from Less Wrong, concerning religion in general and Judaism in particular. With each of us having grown up in secular-yet-cultural Jewish homes, and with me having morphed into an Orthodox Jew of the Lubavitch-Chasidic variety early in college, the material for discussion (arguing?) is usually pretty good.

 

So I wrote a response to Yudkowsky’s article. Originally meant to be a long-ish Facebook post, it got longer and longer… and I ended up with an essay article instead. So rather than post it on Facebook, I decided that I’d share it with the good people of the Less Wrong community. But first, some necessary preliminary remarks.

 

·     While I have made an effort to familiarize myself with Less Wrong’s Core Sequences and with the more essential material, I admit that I am not as intimately familiar with the methods of mathematical calculation and philosophical dialectic as I’m sure many members of the Rationalist community here are. I will do my best to keep my assertions clear and intellectually honest, but I apologize for any unconventionality in style, and for my extensive over-use of parentheses.

 

·     This article is not meant to be a presentation of evidence for the existence of G-d or the authenticity of the Torah, in the style of an argument, and so “G-d is real and wrote the Torah” is not my thesis. Rather, this is only meant as a response to Yudkowsky’s assertion that ‘Old Testament’ based thinking deserves no place in any sort of intellectual discourse. My thesis here is simply that Yudkowsky’s critiques of Judaism are generally not correct, that it does deserve such a place, and that Rationalist thinking should not necessitate an a priori rejection of all religious philosophy. This essay is meant to be intellectually open to criticism (any criticism).

 

·     This critique is meant to be a reasonable one, and is not meant as a personal attack on Yudkowsky or any other members of the skeptic community, nor is it meant as any sort of moral rebuke, or anything along those lines. My arguments are meant to be logical, and are meant to be in accord with the etiquette appropriate for the Less Wrong community.

 

·     I am aware and have read the many other essays Yudkowsky has written on rationality and religion, and I am familiar with SIAI’s work. While this essay will focus particularly on “Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable,” I will make references to Yudkowsky’s other essays if needed for clarification, while trying to avoid unnecessary digressions.

 

For clarity’s sake, I will organize my responses into five categories, ranked in order according to the organization of this particular article by Yudkowsky (roughly). These categories are not meant to be strict, but are simply meant to function as an organizational tool. I’ll limit my responses to issues concerning Judaism, since Judaism (though Yudkowsky prefers the term “Old Testament”) is the primary subject of criticism in the article, and it is the religious Weltanschauung that I am most familiar with. As Yudkowsky generally employs an academic style mixed with satire, I’ll try to do so too, and given the context of this post, I will generally use English rather than Hebrew terminology, while simultaneously trying to avoid overtly Christian terminology. I will be using the Mishneh Torah (12th c. CE) as my primary reference for Judaic law, given that it is the oldest, the most topically organized, and the most comprehensive code of Jewish law.

 

My five general critiques are:

 

1)      The author makes precisely 3 statements regarding Halacha (Judaic law), each of which is demonstrably incorrect.

 

2)      The author asserts that the Tanakh (Old Testament) “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”

 

3)      The author asserts that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah without accounting for Bayes’ Theorem.

 

4)      The author asserts that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.  

 

5)      The author asserts that the Torah’s views on legislation, government, history, sexual morals, science, and (most pointedly) ethics are outdated, in light of what Yudkowsky describes as progressive human advancement.

 

 

 

Section One: The author makes three statements regarding Halacha, each of which is demonstrably false.

 

Yudkowsky claims that according to the Torah, (1) cross-dressing is a capital crime, (2) rabbits are ruminants, and (3) locusts have four legs.

 

Regarding the first statement, though the Torah prohibits men from wearing women’s clothing (and vice versa), it is not a crime that carries the death penalty, as stated in the Code of Jewish Law: “A man who adorns himself as a woman does, and a woman who adorns herself as a man does, are chayav, liable (Mishneh Torah., Laws of Idolatrous Worship 12:10)”, indicating there is no capital punishment.

 

Regarding the second statement, it is true that rabbits are listed in the Torah as chewing their cud, and it is true that according to modern scientific observation they are not true ruminants. However, it is also true that rabbits do practice a form cecotrophy through the reingestion of special fecal pellets. Hence, rabbinic authorities that interpret the Hebrew word shafan as ‘rabbit’ classify their manner of cecotrophy as ma’aleh gerah, chewing the cud. Likewise, even in this instance, the Halacha recognizes that rabbits are not true ruminants in the exact same sense as, say, cows or sheep. The Code of Jewish Law states,

“The signs of a kosher domesticated animal and beast are explicitly mentioned in the Torah. There are two signs: a split hoof and chewing the cud. Both are necessary. Any domesticated animal and beast that chews the cud does not have teeth on its upper jaw-bone. Every animal that chews the cud has split hoofs except a camel. Every animal that has split hoofs chews the cud except a pig. (M.T., Laws of Forbidden Foods 1:2)”

The commentator Maggid Mishneh explains that the Mishneh Torah does not mention rabbits as chewing their cud because they have teeth on their upper jaw, and complete ruminants do not.                    

Regarding the third statement, the third book of the Torah states, “(A)mong all the flying insects that walk on four, you may eat those that have jointed extensions above its legs, with which they hop on the ground.” On this subject, the Code of Jewish Law says that these four legs are excluding the back legs meant for jumping, stating, “Whenever a species has four legs, four wings that cover the majority of the length and the majority of the width of its body, and it has two longer legs to hop, it is a kosher species. (M.T., Laws of Forbidden Foods 1:22)” As part of their traditional cuisine, the Yemenite Jewish community to this day still eats those locusts identified in the Torah as kosher.

While I understand that these are highly peripheral points of  Yudkowsky’s article, I’m noting them because I’m guessing that Yudkowsky has some sort of yeshiva background, has probably actually studied Jewish law before, and yet each comment in his article regarding Halacha is incorrect. Also, if one were to argue that these halachic rulings may just be apologetic glosses on a defective primary text (the Torah), I’d point out that the Mishneh Torah was written in the 12th century CE, and that its rulings are a compilation of rulings from the Mishnah (1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE). General knowledge of animal biology was still very rudimentary in both eras.

 

Section Two: The author claims that the Tanakh “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”

It does. It would be difficult to find a string of Tehillim (King David’s psalms) that do not make extensive use of nature imagery. Poetic references to nature are so frequent in the 150 Tehillim, that Talmudic legend portrays King David as spending his free time wandering around in the wilderness alone, and as having the ability to understand the language of birds, trees, plants, and leaves of grass. In fact, people in the Jewish tradition who are regarded as uniquely holy are often portrayed as having a relationship with, and being in awe of the beauty of nature, and as having the ability to speak with birds and trees. This includes various Talmudic sages, the Arizal, the Baal Shem Tov, Nachman of Breslov, R. Zundel of Salant, z”l etc. Considering that the Psalms have formed the basis of Hebrew ritual prayer since the first Israelite ruling dynasty, this does not seem in keeping with Yudkowsky’s portrayal of the ancient Hebrews as being unconcerned with the wonders of nature.

However, Yudkowsky’s point may still hold. It’s true that there’s nothing written in the Tanakh that seems to be obviously on the same wavelength as, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Euclid’s Elements. However, the study of science and theoretical metaphysics is most definitely not lacking in Hebrew oral tradition— which, as Yudkowsky and any other scholar should know, is every bit a part of historical Judaism as the Tanakh itself. In The Kuzari, one of the classics of traditional Jewish philosophy written in the 12th century CE, the author Judah HaLevy describes the Torah & Talmud’s treatment of science this way:

“The members of the Sanhedrin (ancient chief rabbinic court in Jerusalem of 70 members) were bound not to let any science, real and fictitious, or conventional, escape their knowledge, magic and language included. How was it possible at all times to find 70 available scholars unless learning was common among the Israelites? This could not be otherwise, as all branches of science were required for the practice of the Law.”                

HaLevy then goes on to give a brief description of how the practice of Judaism requires intensive study of astronomy, music, agriculture, natural medicine, Hebrew grammar, foreign languages, human anatomy & biology, legalism, hermeneutic logic, economics, trigonometry, rhetoric and metaphysical speculation, as all of these disciplines are necessary for the precise application of Jewish law. Expertise in at least 2 areas of science and 6 foreign languages were requisite for membership in the Sanhedrin, and indeed, all of these sciences are extensively utilized in the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud. HaLevy also emphasizes that the Jewish value of scholarly pursuit is inherited from ancient Israel’s scholars and prophets, and even maintains that the Greek love of philosophy originated as a Jewish influence.

In other words, the Torah does not displace intellectual inquiry, but rather, is specifically designed to stimulate it. Put another way, “Lo am ha’aretz chasid. (Mishnah, Pirkei Avos)” An ignoramus cannot be pious.

I do not know if Socrates and Plato really did acquire all of their philosophical methods by traveling to Jerusalem and studying in the court of King Solomon, as certain Jewish traditions claim. But the fact that such traditions even existed is a testament to the reverence that ancient Jewry held for the pursuit of knowledge as a direct result of the Mosaic Law, and is, again, hardly in keeping with Yudkowsky’s assertion that “the Old Testament doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe - it was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men’s clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era.”

Furthermore, even though HaLevy cites the Torah itself as a source for the necessity to master the sciences  (“And you shall keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Deuteronomy 4:6), this does not mean that any scientific or philosophical pronouncement from the mouth of a religious scholar was taken as dogma. In his discussion of Sefer Yetzirah, a book of metaphysical cosmogony legendarily attributed to the Biblical Abraham, HaLevy says after his description of its contents,

“This, however, is still not satisfactory, because the object of research is either too profound to be fathomed, or our minds are inadequate, or both… for no two philosophers could ever agree on this matter, unless they happen to have had the same teacher.”

In other words, one of the most popular Jewish philosophical texts in history openly admits that the Patriarch Abraham’s views on cosmology may have been incorrect. I mention this point in anticipation of the counter-argument that, perhaps, ancient Hebrew interest in science and philosophy was strangled by preconceived outcomes and intellectual dogmas (“Why continue studying the universe, when Abraham’s Sefer Yetzirah explains the whole thing already!?”). Indeed, the Sefer Yetzirah was later followed by other books and schools of Jewish thought with contending views of nature, matter, and the human mind.

It is here that we touch on the real issue. Yudkowsky already openly admits that Judaism encourages questioning. However, he asserts that such questioning is strangled by predetermined outcomes, and therefore, does not constitute a genuine pursuit of knowledge— he explains his views on this in, “Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points.” Likewise, in “Tsuyoku Naritai!,” Yudkowsky points out that modern rabbis cannot overrule ancient rabbis in matters of Halacha, because of the assumption that since G-d gave the Torah to Rabbi A, who gave it to Rabbi B, knowledge of the Torah inevitably decreases as it reaches Rabbis C, D, E, etc. Yudkowsky then concludes that both knowledge and ethics, as conceived in Orthodox Judaism, only degrades, in addition to being limited by preconceived outcomes, thus making Judaism’s approach to learning qualitatively inferior to the approach of the scientific method.

 

Before proceeding, I want to pause and clarify a concept. In “Tsuyoku Naritai!”, Yudkowsky is making reference to the more general Jewish concept of yeridas hadoros, or “descent of the generations,” which generally refers to the notion that people become less-and-less spiritual with succeeding generations, and  the ancient past is therefore associated with sacred origins, rather than with more primitive stages of a progressive, evolutionary scale. Yudkowsky’s views on Judaism’s approach to knowledge and progress are based primarily, I think, on three misunderstandings concerning yeridas hadoros.

 

1) Regarding Halacha: It is true that modern rabbis cannot overrule ancient rabbis in matters of Halacha— this principle of Jewish legal reasoning is written in the Talmud, Masechta Megillah (“No rabbinic court may nullify the ruling of another rabbinic court, unless they are superior in wisdom and number”). The logic underlying this rule derives from the increasingly weaker claims to traditional interpretation of the Torah, commensurate with increasingly later stages of a lengthening historical chain of transmission from the original Revelation at Sinai, and the codification of the oral tradition in the Talmud. From a legal standpoint, this is logical— and in fact, it’s empirically observable.  For instance: nowadays, mezuzahs are placed at a diagonal, due to doubt whether they should be vertical or horizontal. There is a doubt as to whether new days start at sundown or nightfall, therefore, the Sabbath is 25 hours long, to include both opinions. There are doubts about how to make tefillin properly; therefore, there are both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. There really was once a time when these issues were not debated; but doubts arose over time, mainly due to exile and government persecutions that caused interruptions in the oral tradition. This is an empirically observable aspect of yeridas hadoros, and it’s in reference to this principle that the Talmud (Shabbat 112b) says, “If the earlier scholars were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier scholars were sons of men, we are like donkeys.” Furthermore, acquiescing to courts “greater in wisdom and number” and to courts of previous eras is designed to produce a smoothly functioning legal system, a democratic process in scholarly legal rulings, and to prevent schisms among Jewry with varying legal approaches. This is why the outcomes of Talmudic legal debates were decided according to a vote from the Sanhedrin, and why decisions are determined by the majority opinion of the Sanhedrin, even if the majority opinion is incorrect. This is legal reasoning, rather than scientific reasoning.

 

2) Regarding acquisition of new scientific knowledge: Rabbinic authorities acquiesce to courts greater in wisdom and number concerning (even incorrect) legal rulings, for the reasons stated above. However, they do not acquiesce in objective scientific knowledge, and in fact, most rabbinic authorities throughout the ages have not even permitted this approach. Rabbi Avraham HaNaggid (13th c. CE), in his commentary to the Talmud, put it this way:

“Know that it is your duty to understand that whoever propounds a certain theory or idea and expects that theory or idea to be accepted merely out of respect for the author without proving its truth and rationality, pursues a wrong method prohibited by both the Torah and human intelligence. From the standpoint of  intelligence, such a method is worthless for it would cause one to minimize the  importance of those things which, after scrupulous observation and proofs, ought  to be believed, and from the point of view of the Torah— because it inclines from  the true path and from the straight, leveled road. The L-rd, praised be He! said: “Thou shalt not respect the poor person, nor honor the great person; in justice shalt thou judge (Lev. 19, 15)”. And it also says, “You shall not respect a person in judgment (Deut. 1:17)”. And there is no difference between him who accents an idea without any evidence as to its integrity, and him who believes a person’s statement simply because he respects the latter and therefore contends that his idea is undoubtedly true since it emanates from a great man like Heiman, Karkal, or Darda. For all this gives no evidence as to the merits of the subject in question and is therefore forbidden. According to this preamble, then, we are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, etc, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah  is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of  knowledge, as it is said, “In accordance with the instructions which they may  instruct thee, etc (Deut 17:11)”, still it is not necessarily so concerning any other  branch of knowledge. You can see that even the sages themselves say very often of things which cannot proven by discussions and arguments, “I swear, that even had Joshua bin Nun said it, I would not obey him!” This means that I would not believe him although he was a prophet— since he cannot prove the reason for such a thing in accordance with the rules of the Talmudic construction.”

 

3) Regarding human progress: The concept of generational descent is only applied to the exoteric aspects of Judaism, such as the plainer meanings of the Tanakh, Halacha, Midrashic literature, etc. In contrast, the more esoteric aspects of Judaism, such as Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, are generally regarded as experiencing a generational ascent, rather than descent. Consequently, yeridas hadoros is traditionally understood as a dialectic process of decreasing knowledge of the more “revealed” aspects of the Jewish tradition, accompanied simultaneously by concepts of meta-ethics and philosophy of increasing intellectual sophistication (though dialectically, innate human intuition for spirituality decreases generationally).

 

I admit that certain intellectual limitations do undoubtedly exist in Judaism, just as they exist within any religion or ideology that operates around certain axioms. An orthodox Jewish thinker could never truly adopt utilitarian hedonism, for instance, and remain an Orthodox Jew, just as a Marxist could never decide that capitalism is actually a really good idea and remain a socialist. Nor could the Orthodox Jew reject, say, prophecy or free-will. However, there is nothing inherently non-rational in such assertions so long as these assertions are the product of free thought, and can be argued for intelligently.

 

Section Three: The author claims that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah, without accounting for Bayes’ rule.

Here, I will not contend that the Torah is, indeed, a direct communication from The Ineffable to Moses (though I do think so). That would be beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I will limit myself to arguing that the traditional Jewish claim is not based on an intrinsic logical fallacy.

The Bayesian rule expresses how a subjective degree of belief should rationally change to account for evidence. More specifically, proponents of Bayes’ theorem generally posit that (1) it is illogical to ignore what we know, (2) it is natural and useful to cast what we know in the language of probabilities, and (3) if our subjective probabilities are erroneous, their impact will get washed out in due time, as the number of observations increases.

 

Before proceeding, I will admit that arguing in favor of the Torah’s authenticity is difficult in light of purely Bayesian reasoning, as the traditional understanding is rooted in causal reasoning, rather than probabilistic. As probability theory deals with beliefs about a static environment, while causality deals with changes that occur in the world itself in real time, it is only natural that rabbinic understandings of the Torah’s origin and historical, generational transmission work with causal logic and language. Further, as Judea Pearl points out in his article, “Bayesianism and Causality, or, Why I am Only a Half-Bayesian,” a complete synthesis of causal and statistical reasoning is mathematically untenable. That said, I will only argue that the historical Jewish claim does not violate (1) above: it does not ignore what we now know, nor has it in previous eras. So to proceed:

 To paraphrase Yudkowsky, “This boy was frothing at the mouth— he must have suffered from demons. That man over there cured the boy— he must be an exorcist!” By Bayes’ rule, this is perfect reasoning— assuming the boy’s illness came from demons. Yudkowsky asserts that the Torah has the same problem (“We heard a Voice proclaim from the mountain, ‘It’s all true!’”). In fact, Yudkowsky admits that even if there really had been a voice, the Bayesian theorem would still reveal the logical fallacy— how do you know the voice is Divine, and it isn’t just the Wizard of Oz hiding behind Mount Sinai with a loudspeaker? And as humanity progresses beyond the Torah scientifically and morally, doesn’t it become more and more likely, even highly probable, that given G-d or the Wizard of Oz, it was more likely the Wonderful Wizard? Also, aren’t we ignoring the original fraction of necessarily false claims in our computation— in this case, all of the other supernatural religious claims that have ever been made?

First, let me recount the earliest scientific experiment that I know of. It’s earlier than Yudkowsky’s example: Moses’ confrontation with the Pharaoh’s magicians.

It roughly went like this. Moses goes to Pharaoh, declares that only the G-d of the Hebrews is the real G-d, and then his staff is thrown to the floor, which turns into a snake. Then Pharaoh’s court magicians throw a staff to the floor, and for the sake of scientific control, attempt to replicate Moses’ results to test the critical p-value of their own hypothesis. However, unlike the priests of Baal, the magicians actually do replicate the results. Boom: another snake! The magicians, satisfied with having duplicated Moses’ results, reject his hypothesis and declare themselves victorious.

Though from the very start, it was only the court magicians who thought it was an acceptable experiment. Because you see, the magicians were conducting the experiment under the a priori assumption that any alterations of the natural order would constitute real evidence, which in that era, would make sense from a Bayesian perspective.

Furthermore, back in the day, nobody ever seriously entertained the notion that only one’s own national pantheon was objectively real. To the Egyptians, the gods of Persia, Greece and Ireland were just as “real” as their own— they may have been foreign deities, but deities nonetheless. The Persians, Greeks, and Irish themselves all thought this, too— orthodox Hindus to this day still often think this way. This was generally due to an inability to distinguish between the factual and the fantastic.

So for Pharaoh’s magicians, the burden of proof was quite low: their thesis was that Osiris and Ra were just as real as the G-d of the Hebrews, so all that was needed was a replication of Moses’ results to yield a low p-value for Moses’ thesis that the G-d of the Hebrews was objectively real, and the Egyptians and whole worlds’ deities, not. The fact that Moses’ snake ended up eating their snakes did not matter; their thesis was simply that Osiris and Ra were also real.

Moses, on the other hand, knew that miraculous phenomena did not constitute rational evidence of nearly anything at all— and he knew the experiment was artificial, due to this knowledge.  The Code of Jewish Law states it this way (this quote is long, but necessary— I will keep coming back to it):

“The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the miracle that he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on miracles, the commitment of his intellect has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery (Note: magic and sorcery refer to optical illusions, as the compiler of this code did not believe in real sorcery).

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof of the legitimacy of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. …The same applies to all of the other miracles.

What is the source of our belief in him? The revelation at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following....”

Thus, Deuteronomy relates: “Face to face, G-d spoke to you,” and it states: “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.”

How is it known that the revelation at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? Exodus states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, so that they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.

Thus, those to whom Moses was sent witnessed his appointment as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his colleague.

Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to the appointment of Moses, our teacher, at the revelation at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.

This concept is alluded to in the interchange between G-d and Moses at the revelation of the burning bush. At the beginning of his prophecy, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the signs and wonders to perform in Egypt and told him, “And they will listen to your voice.”

Moses, our teacher, knew that one who believes in another person because of miracles has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: “They will not believe me”, until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders were intended only as a temporary measure, until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain and all doubts which they had about him would be removed.

G-d told him: Here, I will give you a sign so that they will know that I truly sent you from the outset, and thus, no doubts will remain in their hearts. This is what is meant by the statement: “This will be your sign that I sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain.” (M.T., Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 8:1-3)”

So it worked like this. Moses has a prophetic vision of a burning bush. The Infinite One says, “I’m sending you as a prophet to the Hebrews— go to them, and tell them I sent you!” This was entirely unprecedented. Even though there had been others in Hebrew history to have had prophetic visions, the communications in those visions had always concerned information pertinent to the individual alone. After all, if Abraham, Isaac or Jacob had gone around to people saying “Hey! I had a prophecy! This proves G-d’s existence! Let’s all be monotheists now!” such a thing would have been illogical. After all, why should anyone believe them? They could have performed impressive miracles, perhaps— but how would people know they’re not optical illusions? Wouldn’t that be far more likely, anyway?  And even if the miracles had been real, why would that have constituted a proof for anything even then? Moses Maimonides (12th c. CE), foremost rabbinic authority of the Middle Ages, said it like this:

“Anyone who in those days (i.e. pre-Mosaic) laid claim to authority, based it... on the fact that, by reasoning and by proof he had been convinced of the existence of a Being who rules the whole Universe. …But no one could establish his claim on prophecy, that is to say, on the fact that G-d had spoken to him, or had entrusted a mission to him; before the days of Moses no such assertion had ever been made. You must not be misled by the statements that G-d spoke to the Patriarchs, or that He had appeared to them. For you do not find any mention of a prophecy which appealed to others, or which directed them. Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any other person before them did not tell the people, “G-d said to me, you shall do this, or you shall do that,” or “G-d has sent me to you.” Far from it! For G-d spoke to them on nothing but of what especially concerned them, i.e. He communicated to them things relating to their perfection, directed them in what they should do, and foretold them what the condition of their descendants would be; nothing beyond this. They guided their fellow men only by means of argument and instruction. (Guide for the Perplexed I:LXIII)”

So indeed, Moses was justifiably confused by the instruction, “Go persuade them by turning this staff into a magical cobra!”, and naturally responded, “The people will not believe in me. (Exodus 4:1)” Moses knew that his prophetic vision could not be objectively proved to anyone else as authentic— so what was the point?

So the Et-rnal One responds, “Yeah, you’re right. Turning your staff into a cobra doesn’t prove you’re a prophet, and plagues don’t either— but it will convince the Hebrew masses that you might be, and that will be enough to give them hope temporarily, for the time necessary. Once they see you receiving the Ten Commandments on Sinai, then they’ll have their absolute proof.”

The Code of Jewish Law states that miraculous feats constitute proof of nothing— this principle is axiomatic to Jewish thought, and is crucial to the legal process of halachic reasoning. It is very much for this reason that the Christian claim that Jesus’ wonder-working was a proof for his divinity, was routinely satirized by Jews even in medieval times; even by those Jews who thought that Jesus’ powers were real. “How do you know Jesus didn’t just slip some red dye into that water? And even if he did turn water to wine and heal lepers, so what? Even Pharaoh’s magicians could have done that! Aren’t you all ignoring the original fraction of necessarily false claims in your computation?!”

In contrast, the historical Hebrew claim is this: that when Moses received the Law on Sinai, the Ten Commandments were communicated to him through direct prophecy, and further, the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am THE L-RD and “No idolatry”) were communicated to the entire mass of 600,000 Israelites through prophecy as well. Therefore, there could be no doubts that Moses was a prophet, for not only did they all see and hear him receive the Law, and hear the ‘Voice’ he heard, but each one of them individually received the Law through prophetic communication as well, as a public body. BAZOOM! Proof.  Further, the historical Hebrew claim is that this experience constituted proof for succeeding generations as well. This is why the Code of Jewish Law quotes Devarim (Deuteronomy) in stating, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” This line, quoting Moses, was not addressed to the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt and who stood at Sinai, but to the 2nd generation, after the 1st one had passed away in the desert. It was to this generation, who had never been there, that Moses said, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” As the 1st generation could surely have never faked such an event, even if they had wanted to, and as such an event could never be realistically fabricated by an individual and promulgated to the masses of Canaan (we were all slaves just 200 years ago, but then we all forgot, but luckily, Ari and Mendel rediscovered all this…), an indisputable historical tradition is treated in traditional Judaism as equivalent to a personal divine revelation, as far as proof is concerned.

Regarding the post-Mosaic prophets, i.e. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., there is still the question: how do we know they weren’t making it up? After all, they routinely performed miracles and made predictions concerning the future as proof of their prophetic abilities— and in contrast to the Mosaic model, their visions were private, just as much as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s visions were all private, or if you will, Jesus, Muhammad and Zoroaster. So how would they be distinct? Why would it have been illogical for Abraham to proclaim himself a prophet, but not Elijah?

The legal ruling from the Torah is that if any individual Israelite, who is of properly reputable character (i.e. a scholar or rabbi) claims a prophetic vision, and is able to predict the future and demonstrate his or her prophetic abilities to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin— then the Sanhedrin will legally declare the said individual to be a prophet, if the possibility of this Torah scholar being a charlatan is considered sufficiently negligible. Ultimately, the status of “prophet” for post-Mosaic Jewish leaders is not an article of faith, but a legal ruling. This is all so long as the would-be prophet does not contradict Mosaic Law. The Code of Jewish Law states it this way:

“We do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder he performs alone, as if to say: If he performs a miracle we will listen to everything he says. Rather, we believe him because it is a commandment which we were commanded by Moses who said: “If he performs a wonder, listen to him.”

Just as we are commanded to render a legal judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a commandment to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

Therefore, if a prophet arises and attempts to dispute Moses’ prophecy by performing great signs and wonders, we should not listen to him. We know with certainty that he performed those signs through magic or sorcery. This conclusion is reached because the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, is not dependent on wonders, so that we could compare these wonders, one against the other. Rather we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears as he did. (M.T., Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 8:3)” 

Yudkowsky’s assertion that the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal is an example of how ancient Jewry had no concept of how to ask factual questions is false. Knowledgeable Israelites (or even “mainstream” pious Israelites familiar with the Moses vs. Pharaoh account in the Torah) knew perfectly well that such contests yielded no factual information, and were only necessary as a temporary, extreme measure. The fact that the contest took place outside the Temple premises was itself a violation of Hebrew law, as Mosaic Law permits no sacrifices beyond Temple grounds— this was also a temporary measure taken by Elijah. Ultimately, the logical worthlessness of the contest later emerged, as the Israelites who were “won over” to Elijah’s side (the ones who gave the positive peer review) later regressed back to their pagan practices. Rabbinic commentaries to this account attest to this regression as an example of how miracles only constitute “proof” to the uneducated. The 450 priests of Baal, all being Jewish, were executed in accordance with the mandate of Judaic law (“A person who worships false gods is to be hanged”- M.T., Laws of Idolatrous Worship 2:6).

It is here that we’ll address the pink elephant in the room. How would Moses and all of the Israelites have known that what they were experiencing was authentic prophecy? We are still stuck with the Wizard of Oz dilemma: is the Voice divine, or a hallucination? Though the Hebrew historical claim is that all 600,000 Israelites received a prophetic communication all at once (rather than simply the claims of one individual), this does not necessarily alleviate the problem— because even though 600,000 individuals are statistically less likely than 1 individual to hallucinate, what if they were hallucinating (Yudkowsky touches on this problem in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality)? After all, there is very good documentation of cases of mass hysteria, complete with hallucinations, and has been known to affect up to thousands of people all at once. In fact, even if we assume that there was a good chance that the revelation on Sinai to the Hebrews was real, we would still have to admit that there have been many, many documented cases of mass hysteria, far outnumbering the number of times the Jews have claimed to have had experienced public, divine revelation (so far numbering exactly 1).

It would not fully negate the hallucination possibility, to assert that historical Judaism considered prophecy to be a mental ability that comes as a result of intellectual preparation, and that ancient Jewry regarded prophecy as the consequence of decades of intellectual study (knowledge of science was requisite, says the Code of Jewish Law) and of meditative practice (in the Talmud, meditation schools are recorded to have existed). Describing Hebrew prophecy as a primarily intellectual experience more similar to the nirvana of an Indian bodhisattva, than the emotional ecstasy of a Greek oracle, would not be enough to fully negate the possibility of mass hysteria. This is especially so, considering that the tradition of the revelation on Sinai is the one exception in Jewish recorded history of intellectually unprepared Israelites experiencing prophecy (thus the reason the Torah describes them all as temporarily dying after the 2nd Commandment being given). So how do we know if it was enlightened prophecy, or madness they were experiencing? The fact that Judaism is the only religion in history to have never experienced internal ideological schism in its formative stages of development does not fully negate the possibility of hallucination either— at least from a probabilistic standpoint.

But then again, historical theory is not a laboratory science. You cannot test it and make observations— you can only check a historical theory for consistencies and inconsistencies. Analyzing historical theories using probabilistic theorems is usually extremely difficult, and I fully agree with Judea Pearl’s opinion that real events in time can only be understood in terms of causality. Therefore, I would argue that the Wizard of Oz is mostly the result of statistical reasoning being applied to a scenario that requires a primarily cause-and-effect approach; because even if the Orthodox approach does produce some Wizards, that is nothing compared to the number of Wizards produced by a materialistic, reductionist approach.

The Grand Rabbi of Guadalajara points out that according to reductionist approaches to Jewish history that deny the Torah’s authenticity, the Jews would have to be either

(a) (B)y far the most ingenious people ever. Out of all the peoples of the ancient world, this nation of shepherds and fig-growers came up with the classic work of all time. The work that changed all of history, brought us the concepts of creation ex-nihilo, history, purpose, monotheism, providence, human rights, gave rise to both Christianity and Islam and triggered the Reformation and modernization of western civilization… A supremacy dogma if I ever heard one!

(Or)

(b) According to this theory, the Jews are by far the stupidest and most gullible people in the world. They fell for a story that restricts their diet, their domination over their slaves, their weekly work habits and their sex-life beyond what any other nation would tolerate. They bought into a lose-lose situation for everybody all ‘round: The King’s power is restricted, the priestly class cannot own land, and the commoners can’t sell it.

They abandon their fields and towns three times a year to the mercy of the hostile nations surrounding them, let those fields lie fallow once in seven years, let their slaves go free after six years, don’t charge interest -- and just trust year after year that everything will be okay. After all, G-d promises that when you’re planning to leave your land fallow in the seventh, He’ll give you a bumper crop in the sixth. So tell me, what happens when one year this just doesn’t work out? Do you leave that in the books you’re writing?

Furthermore, this theory has the Jewish people making up fables about their blunders in full detail. They declare that they descend from slaves! They tell nasty stories about the forefather of their priestly class, Levi— even though the Levites were supposed to have written the book. The original high priest gets his hands dirty in the biggest scandal of their history. Who is this fable serving, anyway? Why on earth would anyone want to make up such a story? And what sort of crazy people would want to preserve it?”

It is here, then, that I will conclude Section Three in mostly the same way it started. The ancient Israelites were not incapable of understanding factual questions, nor were they ignorant of rational analysis. The concepts of objective evidence and rational apprehension are seen in the Torah itself, and continued on into the era of the Prophets and Writings, the development of halachic reasoning in the Mishnah, the development of Talmudic hermeneutics, and the development of Kabbalah and Jewish Philosophy. Yudkowsky’s claim that factual inquiry into religious matters is a strictly modern, Western concept is incorrect.

As a brief aside: Yudkowsky states that Rome had concepts of law and order, and he seems to contrast this with Jewry. As Max Dimont’s research has strongly indicated, it was the Hebrews who were the originators of the concepts of due process and presumption of innocence in a court of law— not the Romans.    

Section Four: The author claims that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.        

I believe that Yudkowsky’s assertion here is partially correct; but first, the subject being discussed should be clarified. The principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) was first introduced into the public science vs. religion debates by Stephen Jay Gould in the late 1990s, with the term “magisterium” being borrowed by Gould from Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, which discussed Catholicism’s views on natural evolution. In Gould’s conception,

“(T)he magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). (Rock of Ages, 1999)”

To a degree, Yudkowsky is of course correct in stating that Judaism never originally had a concept of religion as a distinct magisteria, and that most other religions never did, either. I would extend this to include contemporary Judaism too, and would argue that Judaism has always been “a religion without Mysteries,” as Shmuel Luzzato put it.

However, though Judaism does not posit any intrinsically incomprehensible Mysterious Answers that are incapable of being logically deduced at all (ex. Catholic transubstantiation), it does nonetheless posit that there are matters, when contemplated, that cannot be fully comprehended by the intellect, and therefore do occupy non-rational magisteria in a certain manner. This is not a modern phenomenon, and has always been present in Hebrew thought (“I AM THAT I AM” says G-d to Moses in Exodus, for instance). The Alter Rebbe z”l, in his descriptions of Divine unity, wrote:

“(I)t is not at all proper to ascribe to G-d anything that is appurtenant to intellect  even in a very lofty and sublime form, as if to say of G-d that it is beyond the  capacity of any higher or lower creature to comprehend Divine Intellect or Essence. For comprehension pertains and applies to a matter of knowledge and wisdom, about which one can say that it can or cannot be understood because of the profundity of the concept. But, it is not at all proper to say concerning The Blessed Holy One, Who transcends intellect and wisdom, that it is impossible to apprehend G-d because of the depth of the concept, for G-d is not even within the realm of comprehension at all. (Shaar Yichud v'Emunah, 1797)”

 This is seemingly about as distinct-magisterium-ish as it gets, and I’d imagine that it is statements like this one that cause Yudkowsky to make analogies between G-d and invisible, inaudible, permeable dragons dwelling in one’s garage.

 The distinction between G-d and the dragon, I’d argue, is more easily appreciated from an existential standpoint than a probabilistic one. Within Judaism, matters that are treated as being incapable of being fully comprehended by the mind are always, exclusively, of an existential nature. The essence of G-d, the nature of the soul, free will, the nature of good and evil, etc., are all treated as being incapable of being fully understood, and these are all existential concerns (and there is no concept of comprehension at all in Judaism concerning the ultimate essence of G-d). In contrast, historical claims such as the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, and purely theological claims such as paradise & purgatory, reincarnation and the like, are not treated as occupying a distinct magisterium. They are considered fully comprehendible to the intellect, with the latter at the very least from utilizing philosophical reasoning.

 Furthermore, even concerning those subjects that cannot be fully fathomed from the Jewish perspective, such subjects are grouped into that separate magisterium as a direct result of rationally acquired knowledge. For instance, in Jewish thought, the origin of evil is regarded as being incapable of being completely fathomed— not as a result of reflexive reasoning or a retreat to commitment, but due to an intellectual understanding that evil exists, and that simultaneously the matter cannot be fully fathomed. This is often referred to as yedias ha-shelilah, or negative knowledge, i.e. knowledge by negative inference, exceeding the boundaries of structured thought. Yedias ha-shelilah, in turn, can only be acquired once one acquires bittul, or the negation of preconceived notions and biases.

 There is then the glaring question, “Why is assuming the existence, or even the statistically significant possibility, that there is such a thing as the non-intellectual, rationally justifiable or desirable?”, but that would bring me to—

 

Section Five: The author claims that the Torah’s views on legislation, government, history, sexual morals, science, and ethics are outdated, in light of what Yudkowsky describes as human advancement.  

It is far beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the viability of the Torah’s views on every popularly debated ethical and academic subject. However, two things:

First, it is only inevitable that ontological reductionism leads to ethical and existential nihilism. There is no materialistic reductionist approach to human nature, whether it is transhumanism, utilitarian hedonism, or Marxist sociology, which is capable of avoiding this problem. Nihilism is inevitable in any worldview that promotes that “G-d is dead,” and it is absurd to claim that anyone endorsing any religious or non-reductionist approach to existence should be considered worthy of public ridicule, but one who promotes the “transcendence” of our humanity through self-selected, voluntary eugenics by reforming our minds in the image of computer technology, should be respected as “rationalists” (no offense intended, SIAI fans). To quote an American playwright who put it this way,

With the exception of a few powerful, dissenting voices, the nineteenth century was almost unanimous in its belief that the ascent of science was a guarantee of the moral improvement of man. As the sworn rationalists gleefully kept destroying man’s belief in G-d, they kept proclaiming their belief in man. Man, on the one hand, was depicted as an advanced outgrowth of the monkey, but, on the other hand, was proclaimed as a creature who can ‘rationally’ work out his own salvation. Vladimir Soloviev, the great Russian philosopher, expressed the incompatibility of scientific optimism about man with man’s proclaimed biological inferiority in a marvelously ironic phrase: ‘Man,’ said Soloviev, ‘is a descendant of monkeys; he can therefore be relied upon to bring about a period of happiness and progress to mankind.’

‘Reductionist science, which for a couple of centuries hammered away at the idea that man is “nothing but” his biological components, did not realize that such a man would be a reduced man, a “nothing but-nick,” to use an expression of Viktor Frankl. And it is not only specialization that brought about this state—specialization is inevitable in a technological life order—but totalization: the idea that there is something akin to universality about the totality of specialization. What is dangerous, Dr. Frankl writes, is the attempt of a man who is an expert, say, in the field of biology, to understand and explain human beings exclusively in terms of biology. At the moment at which totality is claimed for the part, Dr. Frankl argues, biology becomes biologism, psychology becomes psychologism, and sociology becomes sociologism. In other words, at that moment, science is reduced to ideology. Dr. Frankl tells us in his Will to a Meaning that he once came across a quotation defining man as “nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information.” … (I)n a certain sense the statement is valid: Man is a computer. However, at the same time, he is infinitely more than a computer! The statement is fatally erroneous insofar as it defines man as nothing but a computer. (Zvi Kolitz, 1982)”  

 

Secondly, the thing that people often popularly refer to as “Old Testament” ethics is usually nothing more than a common misunderstanding of what the historical Jewish approach to ethics has always really been like, and such misunderstandings are often misused as trump cards in public religion vs. science debates.  

 

Since Yudkowsky mentions it, let’s use slavery as an example. There is a popular notion that the Torah, and by association the New Testament, endorses slavery as being morally okay. This is often held up in contrast to the contemporary, enlightened Western world, where it is assumed that everybody knows that slavery is of course unethical. This is a very popular trump card in public debate surrounding religion, and it is common to hear statements such as, “Why trust the Bible is right when it says ‘no-gay-marriage,’ when the Bible says slavery is just fine?” Most people, having little factual knowledge of the Tanakh (including most religious Americans), assume that the information being presented in the trump card is accurate. Which is understandable— it sounds logical to assume a priori that Iron Age Near Eastern tribes thought slavery was ethically permissible.

For starters, there is a little-known principle in Jewish thought, that many of the Torah’s laws are designed to bring about the gradual elimination of certain societal evils, rather than their immediate elimination, for the purpose of pragmatism and realistic goals for societal change. Put more precisely,   

“On considering the Divine acts, or the processes of Nature, we get an insight into the prudence and wisdom of G-d as displayed in the creation of animals, with the gradual development of the movements of their limbs and the relative positions of the latter, and we perceive also His wisdom and plan in the successive and gradual development of the whole condition of each individual. The gradual development of the animals’ movements and the relative position of the limbs may be illustrated by the brain, etc… When such an animal is born it is extremely tender, and cannot be fed with dry food. Therefore breasts were provided which yield milk, and the young can be fed with moist food which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the latter have gradually become dry and hard.

Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.

... I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for G-d to change the nature of every individual person; on the contrary, it is possible, and it is in His power, according to the principles taught in the Law; but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change at His desire the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous. (Guide for the Perplexed III: XXXII)”

 

This principle of Jewish thought is often applied to issues such as economic inequality, monarchic rule, capital punishment, the status of women, and animal sacrifice, as well as other issues. The Torah’s approach to slavery, for most of Jewish history, has always been understood in accordance with this principle, the idea generally being that servitude was often a tragic economic necessity and hence a necessary evil. Therefore, the Torah’s restrictions on slavery were understood as having the long-term goal of eliminating slavery altogether, but gradually: hence the Torah’s ban on possessing an individual slave for more than seven years, thereby preventing generational slavery; the ban on physically harming a slave; the ban on sexual relations with one’s slaves; the ban on involuntary slavery, and the requirement that they be indentured; the requirement that your slaves must live with you in your home, and eat the same food you eat, etc. The statement in the Talmud (Kiddushin 20a): “Whoever acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires a master!” is logically derived from these rules in the Torah, as is the statement in the Mishnah, “Make the poor into servants in your household, (Pirkei Avos)” which warns against enslaving the poor without monetary compensation.

However, the clearest admonitions against slavery usually come from the Tanakh itself. For instance,  

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for (no more than) six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything... But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my (assigned) wife and children, and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost, and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life (until the Jubilee year). (Exodus 21: 2-6)

 

The classical commentator Rashi (11th c. CE) explains why a Jew who sells himself or herself into slavery is given such a severe corporeal punishment, even though the action of selling oneself into indentured servitude is itself permitted by the Torah. Rashi cites the Mishnah, writing,

 

“Now, why was the ear chosen to be bored out of all the organs of the body? ... Referring to one who sold himself into servitude, the reason is that the ear that heard, ‘For the children of Israel are servants to Me’ (Leviticus 25:55) and then went and acquired a master for himself, this ear shall be bored. Rabbi Shimon interpreted this verse in a beautiful manner: Why were the door and the doorpost singled out from all the fixtures in the house? The Holy One, blessed is He, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said, ‘For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants,’ but they are not servants to servants, and yet, this one went and acquired for himself a master! Therefore his ear shall be bored, for everyone to see. (from Talmud, Kiddushin 22b)”

 

The classical Talmudic interpretations of the Torah’s laws concerning slavery strongly indicate an understanding that servitude, even if voluntarily chosen for oneself, is morally debasing. Furthermore, the reason for abhorring slavery is equally significant: freely chosen socio-political liberty is a necessary prerequisite to be able to serve G-d, for such service requires both physical liberty as well as the mentality of a free person, since slavery is regarded as spiritually and intellectually debilitating (Ex. "So says the G-d of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me!").

 

Such admonitions ultimately had their inevitable effect. Slavery was uncommon among Jews even by the time of the Roman Empire, was entirely avoided by the Essenes, and was branded as equivalent to idolatry by the Zealots, leading Elazar ben Yair to famously state at Masada:

 

“Long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone other than G-d... The time has now come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves. Hitherto we have never submitted to slavery... We must not choose slavery now... For we were the first to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is G-d who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men... In our case it is evident that daybreak will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle.

 

Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery. After that let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first, let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames. It will be a bitter blow to the Roman, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare— our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because...we chose death rather than slavery....”

 

Given all of this, the popular contention that the Torah endorses slave-ownership is difficult to defend. This is especially so, considering that the modern Western world generally does consider the revocation of personal liberties through imprisonment to be a morally permissible method of punishing criminals, and the practice of imprisoning criminals is recognized as a form of slavery by the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In fact, the practice of coerced, involuntary servitude as a punishment for criminals probably receives more moral sanction from the U.S. Constitution than it does from the Torah, which prescribes financial penalties, sacrificial atonement offerings, corporeal punishment and capital punishment as penalties for crime, without any mention of the practice of long-term incarceration.

 

To bring everything back around: Yudkowsky’s severe critiques of religion, notably Judaism,   are generally false— even concerning demonstrable facts much of the time, and are inconsistent with Less Wrong’s efforts to promote the rational overcoming of intellectual self-deception and bias. Rationality does not necessitate the rejection of all religious philosophy, nor the intellectual denial of G-d. To end with one more quote,

 

There was a growing conviction (in the 19th century) that science could be relied on to provide a secure rational foundation for all of our ethical and moral standards. The philosophical roots of this conviction can be traced to Greek philosophy, … Greek philosophy thus relied on human reason to derive moral and ethical principles from the nature of things, rather than from G-d, as the Hebrews believe. An ethics thus divorced from G-d is autonomous.

‘Morally speaking, my friends, the shtetl Jew of Eastern Europe was without peer in the history of communal morality. Poverty-stricken, oppressed, hated, mocked, woefully lacking in aesthetics, the shtetl Jew reached heights of ethical and moral purity that made crime in his midst unthinkable and social indifference impossible. Nobody starved in the poor shtetl, and nobody was denied the opportunity to acquire knowledge, a much more sought-after and much more respected commodity than money…

Now, why did this come to pass? Why did poverty and oppression, which usually breed crime, breed, in the mud of the shtetl, purity of heart as a mass phenomenon?

‘Believing, as the shtetl Jews did, that ethical behavior is G-d centered, they took G-d as their measure. … Our entire history bears witness before G-d and man that ethics become a way of life—not a fossilized thought, but a way of life—only when they are G-d derived. …That is precisely what Dostoyevsky had in mind when he said, ‘If there is no G-d, murder is permissible.’ Abraham, as we must always remember, said it more than four millennia earlier: ‘There is no awe of G-d in this land, and whoever finds me may slay me.”

 

 

 

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comment by HonoreDB · 2012-03-20T06:52:26.614Z · score: 55 (59 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1) The author makes precisely 3 statements regarding Halacha (Judaic law), each of which is demonstrably incorrect.

Well, no. He makes those statements about the Old Testament, not actual Jewish law. It seems blatantly obvious that the rulings and commentary you cite are indeed "apologetic glosses on a defective primary text." The fact that they were written when scientific knowledge was still rudimentary is immaterial--clearly, they patched the locust thing when they finally got around to counting its legs.

2) The author asserts that the Tanakh (Old Testament) “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”

Again, in trying to refute this you cite texts that were written much later. If the Old Testament actually contained references to a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe you'd be able to quote it. I think the closest it comes is a sense of despair and humility at the incomprehensibility of the universe.

3) The author asserts that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah without accounting for Bayes’ Theorem.

I think you've simply misunderstood, here: this is close to the opposite of what the author is saying.

4) The author asserts that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

You don't really dispute this, you just sort of argue that it's okay. It's not. If something like "the nature of good and evil" does not describe some aspect of human experience, then it's vacuous. If it does, then it is subject to scientific analysis.

Given all of this, the popular contention that the Torah endorses slave-ownership is difficult to defend.

The Torah condemns nonmarital sex. Repeatedly, explicitly, and harshly. It does not condemn slavery. Nonmarital sex is an inevitable constant across all cultures, times, and places. It is so much more inevitable than slavery. This seems to suggest a somewhat different attitude toward slavery than toward nonmarital sex.

The passages you quote, brutal as they are, concern only Jewish slaves. The Torah explicitly permits Jews to buy non-Jewish slaves and never free them (Leviticus 25:45-46), but pass them and their children on to your children, forever. It instructs the Jewish people to, when conquering a culturally powerful enemy city, kill the men, women, and male children, but allow the soldiers to keep the virginal girls as slaves. Such a genocide is depicted in Numbers 31, for example. How do you think that kind of slavery went? Imagine you're a young Midianite woman. Your father dies defending your city, and then it falls to the invaders a day later. Jewish soldiers come to your house. Your old, weak grandfather grabs a sword and bars the door, but you plead with him to surrender, and the soldiers watch as you tug the sword out of his hands and lead him inside to a chair. One of them laughs, walks inside, and runs him through. Your mother wails and he turns to her, sighs dutifully, squares off, and cuts her head off cleanly in a single stroke. You've barely had time to register what just happened, when he pulls your baby brother out of his crib. Some part of you manages to mobilize yourself and you find yourself charging towards him, screaming. By the time you reach him, he's already bashed your brother's brains out and dropped the body. You get in one wild punch before he backhands you to the ground. He could kill you in an instant but instead he stares at you appraisingly.

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily? She'd have to be chained up at night, I bet, or else she'd slit his throat. She'd have to be beaten half to death before she even considered accepting this man as a master--the man who killed her family in front of her. Would the soldier sell her to another Jew? It might not make much of a difference: these would still be the men who destroyed her entire civilization. Would she be sold to outsiders? Sold, as a young, virgin slave, to outsiders who aren't bound by all those ethical Biblical rules? Yeah, that's going to end well for her. What do you suppose she would say, if she saw you praying today? Chanting some of the same prayers, thanking the same God in the same language, as the man who slaughtered her family thanked God for delivering her into his hands. Attending synagogue and saying "amen" as they read aloud the story, recorded for all eternity, of her torment and her people's genocide.

At this point you are already preparing your response, where you explain that the genocide was pragmatically necessary. "They had to kill those people, or the next generation would have killed them. God commanded it because He knew it had to be done. Enslaving the girls was the most merciful practical option." I beg you not to say this. This is the worst modern consequence of the Talmudic tradition: an intellectual, explaining how mass killings and brutal slavery are sometimes justified. Every time you defend genocide, you hasten the day when it will happen again. I ask again: What could you possibly say to any of those sixteen thousand Midianite women and girls, if they asked you why you were commemorating the atrocities committed against them, and adopting the perpetrator's heritage as your own?

The next time you kiss a Torah, I expect you to picture that Midianite slave. She's watching you kiss it. She knows what's written there. She sees you as reaffirming, in that moment, your allegiance to the worst parts of human civilization. What do you need to do to get right with her?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-03-20T21:25:45.496Z · score: 20 (26 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is the single most powerfully written argument against Judaism that I've ever read in my life, and it's four paragraphs long.

HonoreDB, I don't know how long that took you to write, but if you wrote a book of Bible stories from the victims' perspective, I think it might sell.

comment by shminux · 2012-03-21T05:29:54.603Z · score: -7 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should know better than to succumb to the emotions where logic is warranted.

comment by Swimmy · 2012-03-22T00:25:53.411Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the contrary, HonoreDB is using emotional outrage in an attempt to force religious readers to recognize the illogic of their text. It's when they're apathetic about the Midianite women that they come to proclaim outlandishly evil things like genocide being ok if god said to.

The Old Testament did condone slavery and rape (in the taking of slaves as wives). This is outrageous and wrong. Nothing illogical about it.

comment by shminux · 2012-03-22T01:39:10.690Z · score: -6 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Old Testament did condone slavery and rape (in the taking of slaves as wives). This is outrageous and wrong.

This is "outrageous and wrong" now. It was neither back then.

comment by Swimmy · 2012-03-22T05:06:54.378Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't intend to get in an argument over that can o' worms. I'll just point out that that particular line of retreat is unavailable to many of the theists promoting the moral quality of the Torah or Bible. Their god is supposed to be unchangable and his laws are supposed to be written on all men's hearts. They instead tend to move into one of these positions: 1) "You need to focus on the essence of the text instead, which is whatever I say it is." 2) "You're misinterpreting the obvious and plain text. It's really saying the opposite of what it says." 3) "Rape and slavery and murder really aren't that bad, in a certain angle and light."

In my experience, they tend to abhor your line of reasoning, and if it is logical or reasonable it is still not an option for them. (Feel free to correct me with examples.) I think HonoreDB's comment is still a reasonable approach for pushing against that inconsistency.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-03-23T13:34:13.499Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a line of argument which doesn't fall into your three categories. I have no idea whether it's completely honest.

Judaism is as Judaism does. In other words, if you want to know what Judaism is, look at actual Jewish behavior first, and then if you like make some predictions so that you can update.

The conquest of Canaan was a long time ago. While, to put it mildly, there are some contentious issues associated with the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, even the most Orthodox aren't recommending or engaging in anything as horrific as that quote from Leviticus. (OK, I don't know this with absolute certainty, but I'm willing to bet one minus something close to epsilon that if it were happening, it would get back to me.)

Just because it says on the label that Judaism is about the absolute G-d-given truth (in some sense) of the Torah, it doesn't mean that's exactly what Judaism is about. This does make it a lot harder to figure out what's going on, but people stuff is like that.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-03-23T15:05:35.250Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Judaism is as Judaism does.

Does this unpack to "Judaism whatever people who claim to be Jewish do"? Or is there some other standard available to determine what particular subset of the observable behavior in the world is "what Judaism does"?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-03-23T15:11:12.715Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this unpack to "Judaism whatever people who claim to be Jewish do?"

Pretty much that, though I'd amend it to "Judaism is whatever people who claim to be Jewish do that they say is part of their religion." Deli food is Jewish, but not Judaism.

I admit I want some consensus exceptions for Jews for Jesus (from what I'm told, actually Baptists) and Christian Identity (white supremacists who claim to be the only Jews).

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-03-23T17:28:19.374Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd amend it to "Judaism is whatever people who claim to be Jewish do that they say is part of their religion."

(nods) OK, understood. I'm not sure that's a particularly informative place to carve, but it's at least coherent.

I admit I want some consensus exceptions for Jews for Jesus (from what I'm told, actually Baptists) and Christian Identity (white supremacists who claim to be the only Jews).

I understand why, though I wonder how viable that is. I mean, sure, it's probably true that approximately all non-JfJ soi-disant Jews agree that the JfJ are no more Jews than the Jehovah's Witnesses are. Then again, it's also probably true that approximately all haredim would agree to something similar about Reform Jews. And as long as we're ignoring some people's self-labeling, I'd sort of like to put in for an exception excluding the haredim, come to that; I'm a Jew, but I don't do what they do.

Which I guess is OK, it just leads to lots of different mutually exclusive things to which the label "Judaism" applies, and the need to resolve what Judaism we're talking about before the conversation gets too far. Which happens a lot with language anyway.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-03-27T15:50:11.183Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thinking about this some more, I am interested in your thoughts about the difference between "Judaism is whatever people who claim to be Jewish do that they say is part of their religion" and "Judaism is whatever people who claim to be Jewish do that people who don't claim to be Jewish don't do."

The latter has some interesting properties, but I'm not sure if they're valuable ones from the perspective of wanting to preserve a coherent notion of Jewish identity.

comment by Grognor · 2012-03-22T14:02:44.969Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Attempting to incite emotional/moral outrage is a valid form of argument. What is this "emotion is not logical" bullshit?

comment by gwern · 2012-03-20T18:43:12.657Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily?

Stockholm effect. IIRC, in studies of aborigines like the Yanomano, they find that kidnapped women are common in family trees and also that men have very high death rates from homicide, implying both that the women did indeed do more than basket-weaving for their captors and they are nontrivially likely to have a dead relative.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-20T18:50:45.210Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would such a woman ever so much as weave a basket for her captor voluntarily?

in studies of aborigines like the Yanomano, they find that kidnapped women are common in family trees [...] implying both that the women did indeed do more than basket-weaving for their captors

How does this address the question?

comment by gwern · 2012-03-20T18:59:09.152Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Er... because do you think the Yanomano man is standing there, shaking the non-existent shackles, saying 'weave a basket and bear my children!' every minute of the day? Such guard labor would be impossibly expensive.

So the point stands. They can and do.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-20T19:06:57.511Z · score: -3 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, of course. It's not like they're chained to the ground, so they must be going along with it voluntarily!

There's no such thing as rape in marriage, right?

Edit: Okay, I'm probably too angry about this to be especially rational right now. I apologize if I've misinterpreted your position.

comment by gwern · 2012-03-20T19:48:40.913Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some sort of voluntary ness is involved. They are not cutting the throat of their 'husband' while he sleeps, they are not poisoning the kids to spite him, they aren't taking the first opportunity to slip away into the jungle, etc. The more days that pass, the more opportunities they are passing up. Hence, Stockholm syndrome. People can get used to pretty much anything.

Someone in a supermax can be truly involuntary: burly men at every point stand ready to force them to do something, will force them into the solitary cell, will force-feed them food if they go on a hunger strike, will call for doctors and powerful sedatives, and hard concrete and steel hem them in.

comment by Nornagest · 2012-03-21T07:23:15.197Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The next time you kiss a Torah, I expect you to picture that Midianite slave. She's watching you kiss it. She knows what's written there. She sees you as reaffirming, in that moment, your allegiance to the worst parts of human civilization. What do you need to do to get right with her?

Not to play apologist, but as long as I'm going to play apologist I might as well point out that pretty much every well-documented culture I've ever heard of has some comparably horrible things in its backstory. Memorializing them is less common; usually they get swept under the rug, like some of the nastier consequences of the Philippine insurrection (1899 – 1902) in American textbooks or (so I'm told) the Armenian genocide (1915 - 1923) in Turkish ones. But if you take the veneration of the (semi-) historical sections of the Torah as evoking some kind of national sentiment, which from my outside view certainly seems like it's got something to do with what's going on, then you're only a hop or two away from a blanket condemnation of nationalism.

Which I think I'd actually be rather comfortable with -- I'm no great fan of massive involuntary identity groups given what they do to people's sanity -- but it does seem rather broader than what I took you to be going for.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-03-24T11:23:04.287Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've copied some of this to my blog - thanks!

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-21T21:26:13.496Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll break this down into two response, because of the length.

-Assuming the locust-thing is an apologetic gloss doesn't seem warranted. Locusts have been a common food source in many parts of Asia and Africa for thousands of years, and the fact that the Torah permits the consumption of certain locusts strongly implies that they were being eaten. It seems fair to estimate that the people eating these locusts would have known how many legs they really had, regardless of illiteracy and poor knowledge of animal biology.

-I'm not claiming that the Tanakh itself contains clear, obvious passages expressing wonder at the universe, in fact I pointed out that the text itself generally doesn't. I'm claiming that the legal tradition that derives from it necessitates the study of nature and makes it inevitable, and that the study of nature became a part of Jewish oral tradition as a consequence. While I used the Kuzari for easy citation, the necessity for scientific study can be seen from the text of the Mishnah. How would the Tannaim have fixed a calendar without studying astronomy, established rules for identifying sick animals without studying animal disease, established rules for eruvin without studying plane geometry, etc? Simply reiterating that the written Tanakh itself doesn't express much wonder for the universe, ignores the fact that both oral tradition and written law had an equal stake in how Judaism began, and in how it developed. It also ignores the fact that Judaism has always been much more concerned with the morality of concrete, physical activity than with scientific speculation, the latter having been appropriately subordinated and sublimated to the cause of the former.

-You're right, I am admitting that certain aspects of Jewish thought occupy distinct magisteria. What I am disputing is that rational, scientific methodology is synonymous with reason itself. Many schools of philosophy utilize methods of logic other than the scientific process. As an example (and I don't mean this to be below the belt), one could claim, as Peter Singer does, that an adult baboon has more utility and moral value than a human infant, since the baboon would have a more developed brain and therefore greater consciousness. By extrapolation, one could similarly claim that a super-intelligent computer would have more utility and moral value than a contemporary adult human, since the former would have a more developed mind and therefore greater consciousness. If ethics are to be understood through the prism of the scientific process as we know it, these ideas could actually be argued for pretty effectively, and I don't think such methods of reasoning are appropriate for the discussion of such issues.

comment by HonoreDB · 2012-03-22T03:26:14.379Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems fair to estimate that the people eating these locusts would have known how many legs they really had

Any large text that makes scientific claims makes errors. A modern science textbook averages about 14 errors. Ancient Greek texts are full of erroneous factual claims that they could have easily checked. Aristotle claimed that men had more teeth than women. Had such a claim been in the Torah, there would be later commentary explaining that in women, certain teeth don't count as teeth.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2012-03-23T03:02:08.165Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being fair to Aristotle, it may be the case that empirically, in Ancient Greece, or in whatever sample he used to check his claim, the women did actually have fewer teeth on average. Worse nutrition, more stress on the body due to pregnancy, whatever. If you check ten women and ten men in a non-modern community you might easily get such a result by sheer chance.

comment by Pavitra · 2012-03-24T15:51:27.362Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that Aristotle did check empirically, though.

comment by thomblake · 2012-04-16T20:58:22.539Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since a large part of what he did was checking empirically, I don't think your opinion is justified. Really, the most likely explanation is that he checked empirically - the same way he observed that the kidneys filter urine, that some sharks give birth to live young, and numerous other biological discoveries that were obtained in part through first-hand vivisection.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-21T22:24:20.969Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As an example (and I don't mean this to be below the belt)

Why would this be below the belt? If "greater consciousness" is what you value, it seems self-evidently true.

and I don't think such methods of reasoning are appropriate for the discussion of such issues.

Is there a reason for this other than disapproval of the conclusions?

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-21T23:41:32.308Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

-I say "below the belt," because I imagine that there are individuals of the Less Wrong community who strongly support SIAI's work and goals concerning AI, but who simultaneously would not consider such AI creations to be of greater moral value than humans, and I didn't want these individuals to think that I was making an assumption about their ethical opinions based on their support of AI research.

-Yes, it is largely because of disapproval of the conclusions, but I disapprove of the conclusions because the conclusions are not rational in the face of other intellectual considerations. The failure to see a qualitative difference between humans, baboons and computers suggests an inability to distinguish between living and non-living entities, and I think that is irrational.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-21T23:51:28.338Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

there are individuals of the Less Wrong community who strongly support SIAI's work and goals concerning AI, but who simultaneously would not consider such AI creations to be of greater moral value than humans

I normally hate to do this, but Nonsentient Optimizers says it better than I could. If you're building an AI as a tool, don't make it a person.

The failure to see a qualitative difference between humans, baboons and computers suggests an inability to distinguish between living and non-living entities, and I think that is irrational.

That's a question of values, though. I don't value magnitude of consciousness; if baboons were uplifted to be more intelligent than humans on average, I would still value humans more.

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-22T03:41:21.030Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you define a living entity?

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-21T23:06:14.134Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Secondly, the story of the young Midianite girl is still not good evidence that the Torah considers mass slaughter to be morally okay, and it is not good evidence that historical Jewish ethics have considered it okay. But as hard as it is to say, both economic oppression and war are difficult to uproot, in a way that nonmarital sex is not. War is often a necessary evil, and so is economic inequality, even nowadays; the gradual elimination of both, as horrid as it sounds, probably is more pragmatic. I don't think the mere fact that permission was granted, in the very beginning, is enough to claim that the Torah treats sex more harshly than economic oppression and war. Both, along with violence & militarism in general, are condemned in the Prophets (especially Jeremiah & Isaiah) repeatedly, explicitly and harshly, over and over again, much more so than any of the other societal ills of the time. This is especially significant when one considers that the Torah does not differentiate between general economic inequality on the one hand, and slavery on the other- the laws that regulate treatment of slaves and treatment of workers are grouped together in the same sections of Deuteronomy.

If slaughter and war were morally okay in the Torah's view, this notion would have continued on into the Prophets & Writings, as well as the Mishna, and it doesn't. The general idea expressed in these texts is that war is morally vile, but also often necessary. The defeat of the Greeks was barely mentioned in the way the Channukah story was told, to avoid the celebration of militarism. Where would such an attitude towards war have originally derived from?

Your use of the word genocide is not accurate, anyhow. Genocide is the systematic murder of an entire nation or race, and it is militarily one-sided. The Torah does not describe genocides, it describes wars between mutually opposing armies, and the evils of war do not obviate the fact that it is often practically necessary (this includes tribal war practices of the 13th c. BCE). I am not arguing that genocide is justifiable, I am arguing that war is justifiable, and it is important to use correct terminology. If one were to argue that the Jewish laws defining a just war are defective, then that is a separate discussion, but to argue that Judaism is violent by telling a story about the everyday horrors of war is not reasonable. War is condemned far too clearly, frequently and harshly in the Prophets, and the glorification of warrior-culture and hero worship is far too absent from both the Tanakh and commonly accepted history books on Jewish history, to be able to argue that Judaism is okay with even militarism in general, let alone senseless violence.

comment by HonoreDB · 2012-03-22T03:13:42.396Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for continuing to engage.

Genocide is the correct term for what the Jewish people do in Numbers 31. After the war is over, Moses discovers that the military commanders have spared the women and children, and is wroth. Or, from the New International Version:

Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

This is meant as a destruction of their ethnicity to prevent them from tainting the Israelites, following commandments such as that in Deuteronomy 7:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

There are plenty of other passages where the Israelites are described as killing "all the men, women, and children." Numbers 31 is notable to me because it makes it clear that this was not commonly accepted practice--it was something Moses had to specifically instruct. But really this is also demonstrated by the way that these sort of genocidal injunctions feel the need to spell out that mercy is not to be shown to the women and children.

If you'd rather not use the word genocide, we can of course substitute "killing a girl's entire family in front of her, then enslaving her," and multiply it by, in this case, sixteen thousand.

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-23T03:12:06.408Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll concede the use of the word genocide, since you're right: substituting "killing a girl's entire family in front of her and then enslaving her" sounds just as bad.

The accounts of wars recorded in the books of the Prophets and Writings often describe women and children being killed in war by surrounding nations, such as Babylonia, Persia and Assyria; it was, revoltingly, a common practice. The rule of war laid down in Deuteronomy 20:14 only allows the Jews to kill adult males in the course of war, and forbids the murder of women and children. The exceptions to this rule were the Canaanite nations and the Amalekites; wars against these nations made no exceptions for women and children. This is why Moses needed to give a specific order concerning the Midianites: the Israelite soldiers assumed that the women ought to be spared, in accordance with Deut. 20:14, and Moses basically informed them that the adult women who attempted to sexually engage with Jewish men in pagan rituals should be killed as any other enemy combatants. It should also be noted that Deut. 20:10 requires the Jews to always offer a peace settlement before laying siege or running into battle, including the Canaanites and Amalekites (Numbers 31 describes them doing this with the Midianites), and forbids the killing of any men, women or children if the peace offering is accepted. In the event the offer is turned down, it is still forbidden to surround the entire enemy camp, and anyone who wishes to flee must be allowed to flee unharmed.

I'd be lying if I were to claim to be entirely at peace with all this: I am not. But evidence for the assertion that the Torah views violence and war as okay, rather than something to be diminished gradually, still seems lacking. The hope for the eventual abolition of war, and for peace between nations, is repeated far too frequently and clearly in the Prophets for the assertion to hold, and the assertion clashes with how most Jews have historically felt about unnecessary violence, beyond their very early, formative period of their history.

comment by shminux · 2012-03-21T05:21:48.550Z · score: -6 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While your other objections are sound, you seem to be applying your modern ethics to the ancient times in your emotionally charged story of the girl.

For comparison, here is a more likely point of view from that girl. Her mother was likely stolen by her father from a neighboring tribe and used for sex, chores and housekeeping at the ripe old age of 12. The woman was constantly raped and beaten by her husband (=owner). The daughter, the girl you are describing, is also considered a property of her father, and is often beaten and abused by her father (and maybe even her mother) and his family, maybe even raped, depending on the local customs.

When the handsome and muscular soldier killed the hated abusers, she looked with hope at the person whose strange customs she had only heard of. She does not mind in the least his quick inspection of her virginity, knowing that it raises her worth, and the odds of better treatment by her future owner.

She has no concept of genocide, which is a norm of the times. She does not mind learning the new language and the new prayers, and is happy to discover that she would not be sacrificed as an offering to her old gods, something she had seen her tribe do countless times with the prisoners and even with their own.

The next time she watches her new owner kiss the Torah, she recites the words with him and hopes that this strange invisible god will be more merciful to her than the gods of her mother or the gods of her father.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-03-21T13:50:12.950Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For comparison, here is a more likely point of view from that girl.

Does "logic" truly tell you that the young pubescent and prepubescent girls in the situation were more likely to feel gratitude at the killing of their mothers, fathers, brothers and older sisters, than they were to feel grief and hatred for it?

That for the Midianite girls in question P(glad|whole family killed) > P(sad|whole family killed) ?

This seems highly implausible to me.

comment by shminux · 2012-03-21T21:25:29.973Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Again, applying modern standards to the life 3000 years ago is not helpful. Here is another potential option: her grandfather, realizing that all is lost, decides to deprive the attackers of as much profit as he can, destroying all his valuable property, including the women. He kills the girl's mother and is trying to kill the girl, when he is slain by the soldiers.

This seems highly implausible to me.

An informed opinion of an expert would be more helpful than our idle musings.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-03-22T02:04:09.603Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Again, applying modern standards to the life 3000 years ago is not helpful.

I'm not applying modern standards. Even Deuterenomy 21:10-14 seems to predict that young captured women will be mourning their father and mother, not be glad at their deaths.

The default emotional response of any human is grief (and/or anger/hate) at the death of one's family, not joy. This seems just human nature, not culture-specific behavior. The exceptions are just that.

comment by Alicorn · 2012-03-21T19:11:00.326Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

maybe even raped

..

She does not mind in the least his quick inspection of her virginity, knowing that it raises her worth

As long as we're swapping emotionally inciting stories, maybe you could pick a consistent one.

comment by shminux · 2012-03-21T21:18:57.261Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

... those were just some possible options, they don't need to be "consistent". I guess I could have phrased it better.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2012-03-20T03:11:26.763Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's too much here for one man to refute all the wrong stuff, so I'll just take a whack at one chosen at random, and leave the rest for others.

First, it is only inevitable that ontological reductionism leads to ethical and existential nihilism. There is no materialistic reductionist approach to human nature, whether it is transhumanism, utilitarian hedonism, or Marxist sociology, which is capable of avoiding this problem.

This is not correct; or to the extent that it is, it applies equally to religious justifications of morality. The assertion that your god is the source of moral rules merely puts the question at one further remove: Why do you choose to obey the god? It cannot be because you fear punishment if you don't; that may be a pragmatic reason to obey, but it is not a moral one. So immediately we're back to individual choice: You choose to obey this particular moral code. Bing, nihilism.

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-23T01:33:28.729Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're partially right. If a certain ethical code is chosen simply because it is regarded as having a divine source, there would be something necessarily nihilistic in giving the said source a positive weighting. However, it would only deny rationality itself as having any intrinsic value: but if the super-intellectual divine has absolute, intrinsic value simply as a part of its definition, the ethical code deriving from it would as well, and certain actions would become intrinsically desirable.

My point here is that there are many people who regard themselves as abiding by material reductionism as an overall worldview, but who simultaneously admit that the core of morality is essentially non-rational (Ex. the "void" described in the 13 Virtues of Rationality), and this is not internally consistent. My criticism is that attempts to answer ethical questions from a purely rational standpoint usually yield incorrect conclusions, when questions concerning the nature and origin of that non-rational component are removed from the equation.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2012-03-23T02:55:57.159Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your reply is based on multiple misunderstandings. I cannot correct them all, but I will take a stab at the most obvious ones. First, "the Void" is not a nonrational component of morality, and the fact that you would attempt to thus make it fit your theological framework is... telling. Second, the sentence "if the super-intellectual divine has absolute, intrinsic value simply as a part of its definition, the ethical code deriving from it would as well" is nonsensical. Who is doing the defining? Either you are, in which case we're back to your choices; or the divine thing is, in which case it's saying "I'm good because I'm good, you better pay attention to me". That is seriously incoherent as a moral argument. You seem to think that saying "Moral code X is defined as a good moral code, therefore it is a good moral code" is ok if you wrap up the obvious circularity in verbiage.

comment by MixedNuts · 2012-04-23T22:40:33.943Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Greta Christina, Will Atheism Become Easier?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-03-20T04:53:03.310Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Second comment, since the previous one got much too long. You can't quote the Kuzari as useful evidence for what members of the Sanhedrin had to study. He's writing about a thousand years after they dispersed.

And if you want to talk seriously about science claims, then we can have fun pointing to the sections of the Talmud that support Flat-Earthism, or the sections where proof-texts supposedly win out over empirical observations. While there are individual Taanaim who are willing to do experiments (Shimon ben Chalafta and Rav are both examples), you also have the example attributed to Rav where he works out that snakes must be pregnant for 7 years before giving birth based on a verse in Genesis. And there's a version of this story in Yalkut Shimoni where it is portrayed as a great triumph over a secular "philosopher" who spends seven years observing snakes while Rabban Gamliel knows the correct answer already.

The claim that Judaism had an either pro-empirical or pro-science attitude is just not historically accurate. Some Rabbis had such views, many others did not.

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-22T02:28:30.518Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

-Regarding Maimonides, it should be noted that he considered such negative knowledge to be the product of positively acquired knowledge; it's the same as what I mentioned in the article on yedias hashelilah. This is why he cited 25 propositions from Aristotle in the Guide for the Perplexed, as supports for his negative theology.

-I cede your point about many rabbis not being pro-empirical; the Rabban Gamliel example is a good one. However, I'll add that very few Gaonim or Rishonim were willing to flatly deny clear empirical evidence, and were generally just fine admitting that many of the Talmud's scientific claims were incorrect. Also, I'm not aware of many rabbinic authorities who have poskened on halacha on the basis of non-empirical scientific claims.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-03-23T02:53:27.096Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I'm not aware of many rabbinic authorities who have poskened on halacha on the basis of non-empirical scientific claims.

Well, the most obvious pointer if you want an early thing are all the sections of the Talmud dealing with the female menstrual cycle.

More modern examples also exist. The Chofetz Chaim repeated the claim that lice spontaneously generate in the Mishnah Beruah as why one poskens that killing them is ok on Shabbat. He's only writing in the 1890s, 30 years after it was already conclusively established that spontaneous generation was wrong for microscopic organisms, and 200 hundred years after the scientific community had already established that it wasn't true for macroscopic organisms. This is only the most commonly used text for poskening halacha for all of Judaism today.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-03-20T04:45:48.151Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

n contrast, the historical Hebrew claim is this: that when Moses received the Law on Sinai, the Ten Commandments were communicated to him through direct prophecy, and further, the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am THE L-RD” and “No idolatry”) were communicated to the entire mass of 600,000 Israelites through prophecy as well. Therefore, there could be no doubts that Moses was a prophet, for not only did they all see and hear him receive the Law, and hear the ‘Voice’ he heard, but each one of them individually received the Law through prophetic communication as well, as a public body. BAZOOM! Proof. Further, the historical Hebrew claim is that this experience constituted proof for succeeding generations as well. This is why the Code of Jewish Law quotes Devarim (Deuteronomy) in stating, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” This line, quoting Moses, was not addressed to the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt and who stood at Sinai, but to the 2nd generation, after the 1st one had passed away in the desert. It was to this generation, who had never been there, that Moses said, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” As the 1st generation could surely have never faked such an event, even if they had wanted to, and as such an event could never be realistically fabricated by an individual and promulgated to the masses of Canaan (we were all slaves just 200 years ago, but then we all forgot, but luckily, Ari and Mendel rediscovered all this…), an indisputable historical tradition is treated in traditional Judaism as equivalent to a personal divine revelation, as far as proof is concerned.

What you have above is the Kurazirtic argument. It is an argument that is massively undermined by the Biblical and Talmudic texts themselves. There are occasions by the text's own description where the entire tradition has been narrowly confined to a small set of people. 2 Kings 22 strongly implies that the entire Torah was essentially forgotten until a copy of the text was found hidden in a way. That doesn't jibe with the claim of mass generation by generation transmission. There are similar (although not quite as extreme incidents) in the Talmud.

The Kuzaritic argument is interesting in that every major religion has many of the same apologetic tactics, and then they each try to use a small set of what they consider to be very strong arguments to flavor their apologetics for their own religion. The Kuzari's argument is somewhat akin to the Trilemma. Neither is particularly persuasive and for surprisingly similar reasons.

It might help to ask how a divine being could actually demonstrate with a decent chance that it was actually some sort of genuine divine being to future generations. Of course, the most obvious is just intervening in later generations in an equivalently blatant form. But let's say for some reason it doesn't want to do that. There are still a lot of solutions. Here's one example: Define a prime number and a power of 2, and then assert that 2^n-1 is prime for n= 2,3,5,7,13,17,31,61,89,107,127,521,607, 1279 and for no other n below 2000, and then include a really difficult to verify detail like the claim that the 35th such n is n= 1398269. That's about a paragraph worth of stuff, and far more informative than long lists of begats, and has the obvious advantage that as the mathematical ability and computers advance, more and more of the sequence can be verified. By the time one gets to the last few claims one has to already be at an advanced enough technology level that one will presumably have a record that the text predated any advanced computers.

Of course, this isn't the only option. Other options include things like saying "the sun is a star" or other similar claims. Yet curiously, no ancient deity, not the YHVH or Zeus or any other deity feels a need to try this approach.

However, though Judaism does not posit any intrinsically incomprehensible Mysterious Answers that are incapable of being logically deduced

If you think this, you may need to reread the Guide to the Perplexed. Maimonides certainly disagrees in the context in which his approach to talking about the divine revolves around negative theology. While he might have been controversial 800 years ago, for the last 600 or so, his philosophy has been dominant, and I don't think you are likely to about to reject Rambam. (Edit: Oh, I think I see what you are trying to say here. It still doesn't fit a lot of classical Jewish philosophy, but discussing why would be a very large digression.)

As to your comments trying to defend Jewish understanding of slavery and the eventual rejection of slavery, the problem here isn't that later texts had more of an objection to slavery. The bottom line is that the basic texts are ok with it. And even the Talmud doesn't outlaw slavery, it just lessens some of the effects (and not even that much- whipping slaves is fine according to the Talmud). The claim that the most basic revelation of God didn't bother just including a blanket "oh, and that slavery thing is wrong" or even just not discuss slavery but rather actively gave rules for slavery, including a procedure for forcing marriage on captured women.

comment by Balofsky · 2012-03-22T01:52:32.714Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll put my comments into two parts, too:

-The reference in Kings II to the "Scroll of the Law" being rediscovered in the ruins of the Temple, refers to the Torah scroll that was considered to have been written by Moses himself personally and placed in the side of the Ark, described towards the end of Deuteronomy. The rediscovery in the Temple ruins by Hilkiah refers to this scroll having been hidden away by King Menashe in an earlier period, and its acceptance is similar to symbolic acceptance-ceremonies (for lack of a better word) scattered throughout the Tanakh. There is nothing in the text to suggest that it is anything more than this, and If the episode had been referring to the entire Torah as a published document and tradition, the compiler of Kings II probably would not have included the brief episode in Kings II in the first place, and it would probably not be nearly so brief as it is.

Further, while it is true that every major religion attempts to flavor its apologetics with unique claims, most of them still suffer from a common element, in that they are all inevitably be reduced to lone individuals performing acts that are easily falsifiable. Muhammad, for instance, cited his own illiteracy as evidence that he did not produce Quran on his own; but pretending to be illiterate, or secretly hiring a scribe to write for you would be fairly easy. Likewise with C.S. Lewis' formulation of the Trilemma argument. The argument that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or genuine, and that the first two options are unlikely, is weak (Lewis, for his part, thought it was obvious that the first two options were ludicrous), and even very few Christian theologians ever abide by it. In contrast, the Kuzaritic argument has been accepted by the mainstream of Jewry for most of their history, since it is taken from the Torah's description of the Sinai event, and was of practical legal use in determining the statuses of prophets in ancient Israel. The Kuzaritic argument of mass generation by generation transmission is, I think, tougher to argue against, and I am not aware of any scholars of ancient Near Eastern history who have developed a good, internally consistent historical theory for how Judaism arose that really trumps it.

-True, a recurring blatant intervention would seem to be easiest, but such recurring intervention would have to violate the rule of yeridas hadoros, a principle of which is that Divine intervention becomes less-and-less obvious generationally (Ex. [Ten Plagues:Menorah Oil Lasts Really Long:We Had To Rebuild Our Own State Ourselves = Very Obvious Intervention: Moderately Obvious Intervention: Less Obvious Intervention]).

Further, for the Torah to state something like 2^n-1 along with a long series of possible outcomes, would only be accessible as a proof to the minority of individuals who would have the acumen to comprehend such a formula for themselves. The general, mass population would not understand it and would therefore not be convinced by it, unless they were to rely on mathematicians who do understand it, and then take their word for it, which would still require a leap of trust anyhow. Such a proof, though it would probably be genuine, would only be intellectually accessible to an elite; everyone else would have to take those elite at their word, and so would only constitute real proof for a minority of people.

In contrast, the prophetic announcements in the Torah and in Isaiah concerning the moral decline of Israel, the future suffering and persecution of Israel in legendary proportions, their exile from their land, the promise that neither they (as a national entity) nor their religion will ever be destroyed until even their Messiah comes, and the promise of an eventual return to their land, have always generally been a much more convincing form of proof for the later generations, given that these are all events that have been experienced by the whole group. These pronouncements cannot be taken to refer to the Babylonian exile alone; the pronouncements as they are articulated in Isaiah clearly refer to the whole span of history, leading up to some sort of Messianic redemption. It also compensates for the continuous lengthening of the gap between our generation, and the 1st generation's experience at Sinai: the list of experiences keeps growing (Ex. the end of the physical exile from the land of Israel in the 20th century).

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-03-23T02:42:07.515Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

-The reference in Kings II to the "Scroll of the Law" being rediscovered in the ruins of the Temple, refers to the Torah scroll that was considered to have been written by Moses himself personally and placed in the side of the Ark, described towards the end of Deuteronomy

This is a common apologetic claim. It both doesn't fit with the text and isn't actually relevant. No claim is made in the text that it is a Sefer Torah from Moses. The priest just shows up with a book he says was found, and it is clear in the text that neither Josiah nor Shaphan have any idea what this object is. Shaphan refers to it just as a sefer not hasefer, it is a book, not the book. Neither Josiah or Shaphan seem to know much about it at all. How good was the tradition when neither the King nor one of his major scribes knows even what the text in question is?

If the episode had been referring to the entire Torah as a published document and tradition, the compiler of Kings II probably would not have included the brief episode in Kings II in the first place, and it would probably not be nearly so brief as it is

And the episode isn't brief at all, the reign of Josiah is a major section of Kings. One and a half chapters are devoted to Josiah's reign, and one isn't talking about a text that at all gives details for major events. Moreover, the writer of Kings repeatedly references a non-extant more detailed text about the monarchs, (23:28 is one mention), so this is the set of events that the writer considers important. Frankly, I don't think that the text in question was the Torah as we currently have it. But it doesn't need to be: it just matters that something major (the text of Deuteronomy is a common hypothesis among scholars) was completely missing to the point where almost no one knows what it is. That strongly undermines any sort of Kuzaritic claim.

In contrast, the Kuzaritic argument has been accepted by the mainstream of Jewry for most of their history

This is both not true (the argument wasn't popular until after the Kuzari was written) and essentially irrelevant. While I can see how a deeply religious Jew would think this matters (since halachah is frequently determined by tradition and the practice of Klal Yisrael as a whole), how commonly accepted a specific theological argument is has no useful bearing on whether or not it is correct unless one has already accepted pretty much all of normative Orthodox Judaism.

-True, a recurring blatant intervention would seem to be easiest, but such recurring intervention would have to violate the rule of yeridas hadoros, a principle of which is that Divine intervention becomes less-and-less obvious generationally

And this belief exists essentially to explain the apparent fact that the miracles get tinier and tinier. Nowhere even in the Biblical text does God ever say "oh, and I'll use subtler and subtler methods as recording and history get better, and by the time you have things that can actively record sound and sight I'll never do miracles.' This is a universal throughout the planet- the further back in time one goes the more miraculous claims there are. One sees this in the mythology of China or Japan, or Australian aboriginal groups. The simplest explanation is the obvious one.

Further, for the Torah to state something like 2^n-1 along with a long series of possible outcomes, would only be accessible as a proof to the minority of individuals who would have the acumen to comprehend such a formula for themselves. The general, mass population would not understand it and would therefore not be convinced by it, unless they were to rely on mathematicians who do understand it, and then take their word for it, which would still require a leap of trust anyhow. Such a proof, though it would probably be genuine, would only be intellectually accessible to an elite; everyone else would have to take those elite at their word, and so would only constitute real proof for a minority of people.

First, this is exactly the state of things now. How many frum people can't open and read a blat of Gemarrah? How many of them can even tell you off the top of their head which common midrashim are midrashim and which are actually in the Torah? Relying on the elite in this fashion is no different than relying on Moshe Feinstein or other more learned scholars to issue rulings and advice. Moreover, the math involved in my example is easy: most of it can be explained to a middle school student. And this is only one example of the many things a deity could do. I've got a lot of other examples, such as giving us the dates and times for when we will see supernovae. Since visible supernova to the naked eye occur every few hundred years and are not at all periodic, this would easily demonstrate things to the even ignorant masses. And I've literally only spent a handful of minutes thinking about what I might do if I were a deity, and I'm not particularly bright or creative.

These pronouncements cannot be taken to refer to the Babylonian exile alone; the pronouncements as they are articulated in Isaiah clearly refer to the whole span of history, leading up to some sort of Messianic redemption.

Or the writer of Isaiah thought that the end of the Babylonian exile was going to be the beginning of a Messianic era. And I really don't think you want to try to point to fulfilled Biblical prophecies. That opens a whole different can worms starting with the prophesied destruction of the city of Tyre in Ezekiel that never happened.

comment by smijer · 2012-04-18T23:57:20.650Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Coming late... enjoying this discussion. I haven't read much from Jewish apologists. Balofsky seems a cut above his Christian counterparts. But my question is about your mention of a non-extant history mentioned in 23:28. How do we know this is a non-extant history, and not a reference to Chronicles?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-04-19T01:47:09.819Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's some detailed scholarly issues about this. It looks like what he have as Chronicles may contains parts of the text that Kings calls Chronicles of the Kings of Judah. (To be precise, what Kings calls Divrei Hayamim and what is commonly translated at Chronicles. The Hebrew title of the extent book of Chronicles is also Divrei Hayamim).

So why do they seem to be distinct books?

First the extant book called Chronicles contains description of events after the time of Kings, so whatever Kings is talking about had at minimum to refer to something else. In particular, Chronicles includes the decision by Cyrus to let the Jews return and Kings ends with events happening about forty years before. (There are some complicating issues- the chronology in both Kings and Chronicles as well as other later books of Tanach doesn't fit well at all with the Babylonian or Persian records when talking about the time period of the first exile. Exactly which bits are temporally reliable are not clear.) Now, one could say to this that it is possible that the book of Kings actually refers to an earlier version of Chronicles and that our text has sections added at the end. There is, as I understand, linguistic problems with this. In particular, the end of Chronicles_extant uses a pretty consistent language and style, but I don't know enough about the linguistics to evaluate or comment on that claim in detail.

Second, Kings seems to be referring to multiple distinct books as Chronicles, one for the Judean kingdom and one for the Israelite kingdom. (For most of the First Temple period there are two distinct kingdoms). See for example 1 Kings 16:5, and the verse cited above. And in fact, Chronicles_extant makes a similar pair of references to two books of kings, although it isn't completely clear that the author is talking about the same thing. See for example 1 Chronicles 9:1 and 2 Chronicles 16:11.

Third, Kings and Chronicles have very different attitudes about the same kings and events, and sometimes gives them different names. See in particular 1 Kings chapter 15 and 2 Chronicles chapter 13 for a glaring example. That strongly suggests that neither source had access to the other source.

comment by orthonormal · 2012-03-20T04:07:26.424Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand why you wanted to write all this, but you didn't seem to put much thought into whether your intended audience might want to read all of it. Short posts with simple topics are much easier to commit to; a long post can be forgiven if it has a strong hook at the beginning and a simple (could be summarized to a ten-year-old) structure to the different parts. This article seems to have neither.

For that matter, you need to include a summary break in your post (it's one of the options at the top of the Edit window) so that you don't infuriate everyone who'd like to scroll through the recent posts and see what's new.

comment by Dustin · 2012-03-20T04:05:07.096Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I'm interested to see the comments that follow, I find that rarely do these type of articles receive much constructive debate because they are too wide-ranging and contain too many points with tons of quotes and all sorts of evidence to support the authors argument.

When you are trying to convince an audience that is not already sympathetic to your argument, you have to make it as easy as possible for them to digest and supply counterpoints. In my instance, I read several things that I thought were probably factually wrong and several lines of argument that I didn't think followed from the evidence provided, but by the time I was through, I forgot what I wanted to respond to and, since I wasn't convinced by the arguments presented, didn't care enough to re-read through the article again to pick out what I wanted to talk about.

While I applaud the effort, I feel you would have a much better response by cutting this down to at least 5, if not more, posts.

comment by lavalamp · 2012-03-20T03:48:22.620Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Therefore, there could be no doubts that Moses was a prophet, for not only did they all see and hear him receive the Law, and hear the ‘Voice’ he heard, but each one of them individually received the Law through prophetic communication as well, as a public body. BAZOOM! Proof.

This strikes me as really bizarre reasoning. A malevolent deity can fake one prophet's experience but is incapable of scaling the deception up to convincing everyone personally?

ETA:

Within Judaism, matters that are treated as being incapable of being fully comprehended by the mind are always, exclusively, of an existential nature. The essence of G-d, the nature of the soul, free will, the nature of good and evil, etc., are all treated as being incapable of being fully understood, and these are all existential concerns...

And what happens if we figure out, say, free will or the nature of good and evil? Would that cause you to modify your opinion?

First, it is only inevitable that ontological reductionism leads to ethical and existential nihilism.

You say this like it would be a bad thing if true. I think your mental model of what/how atheists think is not very accurate. What's so is so, whether we like it or not (see the obligatory http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Litany_of_Gendlin and http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Litany_of_Tarski). Reasoning from "nihilism is bad" to "therefore, reductionism is incorrect" is not a reasoning method which will reliably lead you to correct conclusions (argument from consequences).

Also, the formatting on this is inconsistent.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-20T03:16:50.808Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unfortunately for the inchoate debate, few are the domain experts in this area who are not themselves of the faith.

comment by Manfred · 2012-03-20T18:02:00.106Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The distinction between G-d and the dragon, I’d argue, is more easily appreciated from an existential standpoint than a probabilistic one.

If it had been vice versa, would you have written the next section from the probabilistic viewpoint instead?

That is to say, are you aware that the quoted sentence is a big red flag for rationalization and feel that it's justified, or are you doing it without being aware?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-03-20T12:15:47.398Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Responding to particular arguments in the post seems clearly wrong to me, whatever problems are worth addressing are somewhat more meta. Yet we already have several responses, some significantly upvoted for technical excellence (in doing that which should not be done at all).

comment by Nisan · 2013-04-05T19:25:12.321Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I don't quite understand the Babyeater standards of literature, my lord, but I can tell that this text conforms to their style of... not exactly poetry, but... they tried to make it aesthetic as well as persuasive." The Master's eyes flickered, back and forth. "I think they even made some parts constant in the total number of light pulses per argumentative unit, like human prosody, hoping that our translator would turn it into a human poem. And... as near as I can judge such things, this took a lot of effort. I wouldn't be surprised to find that everyone on that ship was staying up all night working on it."

comment by wedrifid · 2012-03-20T06:12:13.394Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a lot of fonts.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-22T03:16:21.551Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not to mention the misspelling in the post title.

comment by fang2d2 · 2012-03-22T03:44:10.948Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, because a single typo and some formatting errors completely invalidate any argument.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-22T03:47:38.329Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, because that's what I said or implied.

ETA: This is your first post? I guess I'm flattered.

comment by fang2d2 · 2012-03-22T04:05:38.627Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose my reply might have been better directed at the post you were in turn replying to, but your post added to what that person said.

You at least had other things to say about the author's argument elsewhere, but wedrifid commented on nothing but the fonts, thus implying that the formatting invalidated everything else the author said.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-22T04:09:23.493Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

wedrifid can of course speak for himself, but I have to say I inferred no such implication. It seems rather more likely that he just had better things to do than address everything else the author said.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-03-23T19:14:32.281Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's almost how I read his and your comments-- not just better things to do, but a desire to snipe, or in LessWrongian language, to lower status.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-23T19:24:36.018Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I can't swear to unconscious motives, but for me the problem was that every time I scrolled through the latest comments page and saw "in response to Ontologial Reductionism" I felt a dust speck fly into my eyeball. Even so, I wouldn't have said anything if there hadn't already been a comment on the formatting.

But thank you for informing me, I'll try to bear that in mind for the future.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-03-23T19:34:58.583Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I'd have seen your comment as hostile if it had been a direct reply to the post. In that case, it would have looked like helpful proof-reading.

comment by pedanterrific · 2012-03-23T19:50:30.374Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh. Thinking about it, I can see your point of view, but when I made the decision I had a strong emotional reaction in the other direction- that a top level comment about nothing but nitpicks would be perceived as an attack (which I wanted to avoid). Considering my track record, it would probably be best if I weighted your opinion higher than mine.

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-20T21:54:32.738Z · score: -10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that you feel you need to write what amounts to an essay about why your religion is NOT wrong and bad should make you wonder.

comment by Crux · 2012-03-22T07:33:56.326Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you ever written an essay about why something you believed to be true wasn't wrong or bad?

Am I misunderstanding you, or are you seriously saying that spilling a lot of ink to defend something you believe in is (significant) evidence that it's incorrect?

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-22T15:59:31.249Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is when your prior belief is that god is responsible for the original work.

comment by TimS · 2012-03-22T17:15:32.775Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something can be a waste of time without being wrong. More precisely, if you think writing in support of belief X is a worthwhile use of your time, but your peers do not, this is not particularly strong evidence that belief X is false - but it is decent evidence about your belief "writing about belief X is a good use of my time" is false.

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-22T18:02:36.557Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any god worth believing in shouldn't need libraries worth of apologetics is my point.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-03-22T19:41:46.827Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any god worth believing in shouldn't need libraries worth of apologetics is my point.

Perhaps I've got low standards with respect to gods. I'll accept a god that needs libraries worth of apologetics so long as she gives me immortality and catgirls.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-03-22T20:01:24.822Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My standards are even lower than yours... though maybe what my God/god/gods/things give me is ultimately better than immortality and catgirls, it's really hard to tell.

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-22T19:45:02.927Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

once you have the catgirls and immortality, in what sense does she need the apologetics?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-03-22T19:57:32.051Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

once you have the catgirls and immortality, in what sense does she need the apologetics?

Whatever sense she likes (in addition to whatever sense you were talking about). If the nature of existence (and possibly the machinations of a rival god) are such that anyone who does not spend three hours in the apologetics library will end up not believing in her (and lose the benefits of affiliation) then I'll spend three hours a day in the boring library. If she actually physically requires the presence of the apologetics library in order to sustain her existence then I'll fight to the death to defend it. (The temporary death. Because I'm immortal. With catgirls.)

comment by TimS · 2012-03-22T18:32:29.239Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Be that as it may, your original comment can reasonably be interpreted as:

You sure are trying really hard to justify your belief. Are you sure that you aren't trying to deceive yourself about your true beliefs?

Whatever the merits of that analysis, it asserts you know the mental processes of the speaker better than the person living the processes, and is not engaging with the speaker. It's quite presumptuous to interact with someone with engaging with them.

In short, you are getting push-back because you are being rude.

comment by drethelin · 2012-03-22T20:36:09.850Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're right. I should've been less rude

comment by Crux · 2012-03-22T18:25:55.225Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm. I may see what you mean.

comment by Dallas · 2012-03-20T11:47:38.257Z · score: -29 (29 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, why are you wasting your time trying to evangelize, doing everything short of actually calling us Nazis, without direct physical evidence when you could be spitting on those awful 8-year-old whores walking to school or sucking an infant's dick?

The utility you generate by doing this is probably cancelled out by the fact, that as a direct consequence, I have inscribed the word יהוה onto a sheet of paper twice for each and every hyphen in your article, followed by reciting it, because it is really goddamn annoying. Stop apologizing for your utterly and irredeemably evil moral system.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2012-03-20T13:24:05.493Z · score: 10 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

r/atheism is that way. We at Less Wrong hold ourselves to a higher standard about where rational discussion is concerned. At a purely selfish level, when posts like the author's are written that have minimal civility, and responses like this are made, many bystanders will when reading such a response become more sympathetic to the original writer.

Incidentally, you seem to be under a bunch of factual misconceptions or are deliberately ignoring them to be insulting rather than helping yourself or the author become less wrong. In the Beit Shemesh case, the incident in question was caused by charedim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) directed at other Orthodox Jews who were not charedi. Similarly, the act of metitzah b'peh is generally only done by charedim, and even then, not all of them. This second is particularly bad as evidence of your implied claim that the OP has an "utterly and irredeemably evil moral system" in that the practice arose as a codification of medical beliefs in the late Middle Ages and isn't substantially a moral claim. (Although as frequently happens when a tradition becomes under attack, some practitioners in response have begun see it as a moral issue. This is presumably to help eliminate cognitive dissonance among other matters.)