Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Three: Theism and Synthetic Thought)

[Intro, Part I, Part II]

OK, smart guy, what exactly is this ‘synthetic thought’ you’ve been alluding to?

Well, at its most basic, synthetic statements are statements that tell us things about the world around us. They combine our minds with that which is outside it (hence the term ‘synthetic’ i.e. bringing together two or more disparate elements). Our entire life is dependent on this synthetic thought structure.

Synthetic statements are not arrived at solely through the power of reason, but rather through induction, intuition, common sense &c.

There are two types of synthetic statements:

I)                    Synthetic a priori (prior to experience)

II)                  Synthetic posteriori (after experience)

Most of us are familiar with the posteriori synthetic statements, except that we simply call them ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ about the world. These are statements made by way of observation, induction, experimentation and experience. The entire edifice of modern science is based upon proposing and debunking said facts and theories. All of this is based upon methods of observation and induction which can only occur after we have gained the knowledge through sensual experience or via tools which we observe.

All rationalists accept that the information achieved through controlled methods of observation can be legitimately accepted as ‘facts’. We may debate their status base on methods of proof, but we all agree that such a thing exists (Rav Dr. Avraham spends quite a bit of effort demonstrating this and refuting relativist ideas based on different points of view. This is not, however, germane to our subject, so we will move on).

Synthetic a priori Beliefs

All this is very nice, but what about the first category – the ‘synthetic a priori‘? Is it possible to arrive at truisms about the world which hold even before experience? Put another way, can there be ‘synthetic axioms’? Or are we forever doomed to make statements that, while impressive, can never rest on solid ground, as they are based upon non-analytical methods such as induction?

This is the key point Rav Dr. Avraham wishes to make. In his view, synthetic statements about the world, prior to experience, are not only possible but easy to demonstrate. As SE has clearly understood, all of us have ‘synthetic beliefs’ about the world around us, even if we can’t prove them analytically. All of us, regardless of outlook, possess ‘beliefs’ about the world – both how it is and how it should be. These are brought about through intuition, common sense and other “non-analytical” forces. This is as true in the moral sense as it with regard to arguments about reality.

Let’s go back to my original argument regarding ‘What is Judaism’. As I said before, as soon as there were attempts to analytically ‘prove’ what Judaism is, the efforts led to despair. Yet for decades, secularists and religionists, nationalists and cosmopolitans all debated fervently what Judaism is.

Were they all unaware of the analytical problem? No. They simply instinctively believed or intuited, backed up by whatever evidence, that that is what the ‘essence’ of Judaism is. They were working with a different type of rules and axioms. Their arguments may have been analytical (and synthetic posteriori) but their assumptions were synthetic (a priori).

God as a Synthetic a priori Belief

Rav Dr. Avraham argues that belief in a God is a synthetic a priori statement or belief. It is a belief about the world itself, about its essence that comes prior to any investigation, experience or experimentation. This is why discussion about the ‘conflict’ between religion and science is utterly groundless. Science is concerned with making synthetic posteriori statements. It is dependent for its conclusions on observation and experimentation, both ‘after experience’ methods. It cannot, by definition, make statements about the world a priori.

Rav Avraham further argues that not only is the belief in a God a synthetic a priori statement, it is also the most reasonable one to have, and it ensures a stable structure of thought to exist. In his view, attempts at creating synthetic a priori statements without God (such as Kant’s transcendental arguments) as a starting point are weak attempts to dodge the most reasonable basis for reality simply because His existence cannot be ‘proven’.

He demonstrates arriving at the recognition of God as a synthetic a priori statement primarily through what is called the epistemological argument (there are other ways to intuit God, such as the assumption that someone must have created the universe, but these are not the basis here). Briefly, all human beings believe that there is match between our senses and the world. If I see a flower, then I believe there really is a flower there. If I hear music, I believe it is not merely a random series of sounds.

How do we believe this? There is no way for us to ‘prove’ that this correlation is true, yet we all believe it. For all we know, we live in ‘The Matrix’. The idea that there is a “coordinating force” or at least a force that ensures this correlation is a reasonable answer to make. The idea that this force also created the world and thus planned it out that there would be such a correlation is even more so. This is but one of many arguments of how to arrive at a synthetic belief (not merely an ’emotional’ or ‘irrational’ belief) in the existence of a Creator.

Notice that none of this ‘proves’ the 13 ikarim or any other theological position. As I said before, this book is more modest in its ambitions than that. Its purpose is merely to demonstrate that religious belief is perfectly “rational”. It may not be analytical, but then true analysis can only lead to wholesale skepticism. Since almost all of us hold to synthetic positions about the world, a priori as well as posteriori, belief in a Creator and a Planner of the universe is no less and possibly more “rational” than negationary positions.

So what else can this analytical-synthetic divide teach us? More on that in the next post.

Coming Up: ‘The Decline of Generations’ and the Synthetic-Analytical Divide


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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3 Responses to Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Three: Theism and Synthetic Thought)

  1. Pingback: Coming Events On This Blog | QED

  2. Pingback: Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Four: ‘The Decline of the Generations’ and the Synthetic-Analytical Divide) | QED

  3. Pingback: Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Four: ‘The Decline of the Generations’ and the Synthetic-Analytical Divide) | QED

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