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Monday, October 22, 2012

Guide for the Vexed


Moses Maimonides (RaMBaM) gave Judaism The Guide for the Perplexed as well formulating 13 Principles of Faith, or required tenets of belief. The Guide is a rebuttal of the ancient philosophers, presumably written for believers struggling with doubt. Maimonides' 13 Principles show his views to be fairly orthodox. The Guide bordered on heresy, if only for giving voice to the ancients. It was probably not intended for the unlettered and credulous.

In a recent series of posts, each with a different historical, geographic or social perspective, I identified 13 core principles of doubt from which corollaries could be drawn to encompass a broad range of thought. What follows is a summary of doubt before and after Maimonides, contrasting ideas likely familiar to readers of The Guide with analogous ideas as expressed by later thinkers. Maimonides' 13 Principles serve here as a point of contrast with the 13 core principles of doubt identified in previous posts.


There is considerable overlap between the philosophies identified below. Humanism incorporates the ideas of the Stoics and Cynics, such as the rejection of immortality, the rejection of obscurantism, and the affirmation of virtue for its own sake. The idea extracted from each philosophy is intended to distinguish it from the others more than to define the philosophy.

1. The existence of God
He is the cause of all existence. He causes them to exist and they exist only because of Him... And the existences of the angels, and the celestial bodies, and all that is in them and that which is below them…all need Him for their existence. And this is the first pillar and is attested to by the verse, “I am Hashem your God.”
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides

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Maimonides Vexes Modernity


The Naturalist

The laws of nature are immutable. 

Miracles are a suspension of the laws of nature.


Reject miracles. 


2. God's unity and indivisibility into elements
It is not like the oneness of a pair … and not one like a species. And not like man that has many individuals nor like a body that divides into many different parts until no end. Rather, God is one and there is no other oneness like His. This is the second principle and is taught in what it says, “Hear Israel, Hashem is Our God, Hashem is one.”
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides




The Empiricist: All matter has structure. 

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Maimonides Vexes Modernity


Discovery trumps revelation. 




Reject revelation.


3. God's spirituality and incorporeality
This is the third pillar and is attested to by the verse, “For you saw no image” meaning that you did not see an image or any form when you stood at Sinai because as we have just said, He has no body, nor power of the body.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides


The Skeptic: Magic is no explanation.
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

The incorpereal is immaterial.


Reject credulity.



4. God's eternity
This is that God existed prior to everything, and exists after everything. This is proved many times throughout scripture and is attested to by the verse, “Meuna Elokei kedem.”
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



God is a human invention.
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity


The Atheist: Knowledge trumps faith. 


Reject faith. 


5. God alone should be the object of worship
Only to God should you incline your thoughts and your actions. This is the fifth principle and it warns against idolatry and most of the Torah speaks out against this.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



The Universalist: Reason trumps dogma.
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity


Sectarian claims are mutually contradictory 
and internally inconsistent.




Reject dogma.



6. Revelation through God's prophets
And these are the prophets; and this is prophecy; and the idea of it. The explanation of it is very long and the intention is not to bring a sign for every fundamental and to explain it all, encompassing of all knowledge but it is mentioned to us in a story form and all of the Torah attests to this.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides


The AgnosticConviction licenses coercion. 
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

The Unknowable is unknowable by definition.



Reject certainty.


7. The preeminence of Moses among the prophets
And this is that we accept that he was the father of all prophets that were before him and that will be after him. He was on a qualitatively different level than any other, and he is chosen from all other people before and after him of any that have any knowledge of God; for his was the greatest. And he, peace be upon him, rose to the levels of the angels. He was granted all areas of knowledge and prophecy and his physical attributes did not diminish. His knowledge was different and it is through this difference that it is ascribed to him that he spoke to God without any intermediary or angel.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides


The StoicAutonomy trumps resignation. 




Piety is inherently authoritarian. 
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

Reject subjugation




8. The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God
And he who says that these verses or stories, Moses made them up, he is a denier of our sages and prophets worse than all other types of deniers for he thinks that what is in the Torah is from man’s flawed heart and the questions and statements and the dates and stories are of no value for they are from Moses Rabbeinu, peace be upon him.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides


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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

The Secularist: Theocracy is nepotism.

Justice trumps nepotism. 



Reject nepotism.


9. The Torah given by Moses will not be replaced and that nothing may be added or removed from it
And this is that the Torah is from God and is not lacking. That to it you can’t add or take away from. Not from the written Torah or from the oral Torah, as it says, “Do not add to it and do not take away from it.” (Deut 13:1). And we already explained what needs to be explained about this fundamental at the beginning of this essay.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides

The Freethinker: Intelligence trumps faith. 




Orthodoxy is inherently coercive.
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity



Reject indoctrination




10. God's awareness of human actions
And it says, “The disgust of Sodom and Gomorrah is great” and this demonstrates the 10th principle.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

The RationalistThe universe is impersonal.

Reason trumps narcissism.



Reject narcissism. 


11. Reward of good and punishment of evil
“He who sinned against Me I will erase from My book.” This is a proof that God knows the sinner and the fulfiller in order to mete out reward to one and punishment to the other.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



The Humanist
Morality trumps piety. 
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity


Empathy is universal.



Reject piety.


12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah
And this is to believe that in truth that he will come and that you should be waiting for him even though he delays in coming. And you should not calculate times for him to come, or to look in the verses of Tanach to see when he should come. 
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



The Antitheist: Divine intervention is fatalism.
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Maimonides Vexes Modernity
Action trumps prayer. 



Reject fatalism. 


13. The resurrection of the dead
And even if he did all of the sins in the Torah due to desire of the emotions, and from his physical aspect’s conquering him, he will be punished for his sins, but he still has a share in the world to come and is among the sinners of Israel.
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Antiquity Perplexes Maimonides



The CynicSentience is corporeal.

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Maimonides Vexes Modernity

Immortality is an empty promise.



Reject immortality

Maimonides rejected an anthropomorphic god in favor of an incorporeal one. He insisted on his god's existence but resisted assigning existence as an attribute. Such is the nature of determined faith. Well before the evidence was in, Democritus had posited that matter must have a basic unit. Sextus had since concluded that it was meaningless to attribute substance to an entity without mass.

Maimonides' God of the 13 Principles is the first cause--or prime mover--responsible for creation. The first cause argument is one of the most resilient doctrines that persist to this day. Heraclitus had obviated the need for a prime mover even before Aristotle conceded the point. Heraclitus imagined a self-generating universe.

Long before the Church suppressed Galileo's observations, Anaxagoras knew that science would eventually explain everything then attributed to the gods. Today, evolution is the key scientific fact rejected by the faithful. Compulsory faith, now as in Maimonides time, allows willful credulity to triumph over discovered knowledge. Why should today be different?


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Interfaith Activism and Cognitive Dissonance


Progressive atheists and progressive theists certainly have common ground for social action, but how do they put aside their differences without alienating their members. Antitheists will be naturally conflicted over accommodationism, but what articles of faith will theists have to renounce in order to resolve their cognitive dissonance over working with atheists? The term "Interfaith" already suggests a rejection of sectarianism. That's a good start. 



While the term "Interfaith" suggests a rejection of sectarian division, it also implies theonormativity. To work as equals with atheists, the theist must reject the notion that faith is a virtue in its own right, that doubt is a moral failing and that worship is commanded. What remains is a god that doesn't require praise, or even acknowledgement.



Suppose an Interfaith activist manages to find inspiration in an indifferent god. Are there other impediments to respecting atheists as equals? Even some of the most non-theistic religious rationalists will assert that religion, at least for them, is the route to ultimate meaning. How does one assert that religion is necessary for one's own personal discovery without implying that the non-believer is oblivious to the inherent value of religion? The religious rationalist may be able to suppress the need to express these ideas to avoid offense, but cognitive dissonance is not relieved by keeping one's thoughts to oneself.


Even secularism can be a source of unspoken controversy. Putting civil law above cosmic wisdom would seem counter-intuitive to one who believes in religious morality. To the fundamentalist, God's judgement is sufficient to render an act moral or immoral, independent of any virtue or vice inherent in the act itself. To arrive at secularism, the believer will have to accept, at the very least, that God's judgement coincides with what is true because God is wise. 



But if religion were truly the source of all morality, why shouldn't it be the law of the land? Is it enough for the believer that other religions have missed the mark on moral questions to see the necessity of secular government? Perhaps the religious secularist is compelled by the idea that reason and cosmic law will inevitably converge on the same conclusions. History suggests otherwise.




A theist's cognitive dissonance is not the responsibility of the atheist, but it does present a compelling philosophical question. The religious Interfaith activist will have to accept a number of heresies to work as equals with atheists. These heresies include an indifferent god as well as meaning and morality independent of religion. More likely, religious Interfaith activists will have to suppress the urge to opine and leave their cognitive dissonance unresolved. This is perhaps the best state of affairs that one could expect. After all, wouldn't resolving the cognitive dissonance ultimately lead the believer to reason?



Monday, October 8, 2012

Dealing in Doubt

Introduction

Here, I've brought together the quotes of 52 thinkers arranged as a deck of cards (13 concepts x 4 quotes). The chronological development of each idea is presented clockwise from the top left: (1) spades, (2) hearts, (3) clubs and (4) diamonds. 


Jokers 

 


Reject anthropomorphism. (Rationalism)

Most religious people already reject the idea of an anthropomorphic god, but many would not go so far as to say that their god is a metaphor. Their god is somehow incorporeal but real. Rationalists understand the sacred as metaphor.

 

 









Reject credulity. (Atheism)

We are conditioned to see faith as virtuous in its own right, but determined faith is wishful thinking. Many people have higher regard for believers of other faiths than for atheists. They uphold faith as a virtue independent of the substance of belief.

 


 


 

 




Reject miracles. (Naturalism)

Everything conforms to the laws of nature, yet scientific discoveries continue to be greeted as heresies. Religious resistance to knowledge is evident in the story of Eden. It is a serious threat to scientific literacy and critical thinking. 

 

 






Reject prophesy. (Empiricism)

We reflexively revere the exotic as mysterious. We allow for prophesy and miracles that happened in an ancient, far away land but dismiss modern prophets and faith healers from familiar places as insane. Prophesy is hearsay. Discovery trumps revelation. 

 

 








Reject immortality. (Cynicism)

It is narcissistic to insist that our consciousness is indispensable. An eternal consciousness would not be bound by the circumstantial and physiological limitations that we experience in life and would not share our acquired or hereditary traits.

 

 








Reject fatalism. (Antitheism)

Divine intervention is a nepotism fantasy. If a god exists, it is either disinterested, impotent or cruel. A god that demands worship is, furthermore, a narcissist. Religious fatalism and servility are corrosive to human self-worth. 

 

 









Reject sectarianism. (Cosmopolitanism)

Rival faith claims are mutually contradictory. Most people adopt the religion of their community. There is no good reason to assume that any particular tradition holds any ultimate, transcendent truth. 

 

 







Reject subjugation. (Stoicism)

Faith calls for resignation of the will. A population that believes in the virtue of faith will be docile. Blind faith is inherently authoritarian, whether extorted by religion or the State. Atheism encourages free thought and skepticism.

 

 









Reject compulsory faith. (Agnosticism)

Resolute atheism is not necessary to understand that piety licenses brutality. Many people identify as agnostic as a concession to the tautology that The Unknowable is unknowable. Others stress that the burden of proof is on the believer.

 

 






Reject Supernaturalism. (Skepticism)

We create the mind/body duality to resolve the dissonance caused by the brain's lack of self-awareness. We create the body/spirit duality by extension. Incorporeal consciousness is impossible because consciousness resides in the brain.

 


 




 


Reject obscurantism. (Humanism)

Empathy is a universal human quality that informs ethics. Psychopaths are the exception that proves the rule. It is obscurantist and craven to insist that without the threat of eternal punishment humans would descend into moral depravity

 

 






Reject theocracy. (Secularism)

Reason is the common currency of civil society. Whatever the views of a religious majority may be, the government must remain secular. To grant every individual freedom of conscience based on sectarian beliefs makes consensus impossible.

 


 


 

 



Reject indoctrination. (Freethought)

Faith calls for suspension of the intellect. Faith is not invoked unless there is a claim that cannot stand on its own merits. When we declare certain revered notions immune from scrutiny, we declare competing ideas thought-crimes.

 

 










Conclusion

The atheism of the ancients was no less strident than the New Atheism. In this regard, there is very little that is new about either the New Atheism. It need not dampen anyone's enthusiasm, however, to see what has been touted as innovative described instead as part of an ancient intellectual heritage.