[The following is a translation of a series of articles by Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham in the ynet science section (the veritable lions’ den of atheists on that site). All responsibility for the accuracy of the translations rests with me. AIWAC]
Is Belief in God Rational? Part One
I intend to try and draw an outline here of the relationship between belief and science as I understand it. Let me start by saying that my attitude towards belief is entirely rational, and I will deliberately avoid any digression into mysticism or arguments “beyond the intellect” and the like (In fact I don’t really understand what arguments ‘beyond the intellect’ are. Arguments and beliefs exist in the intellect and nowhere else).
These two disciplines are dear to me (I don’t know if belief is a discipline. I tend to think that at least its foundation is part of philosophy), and I have no small amount of confidence in them. They are both reasonable and logical in my eyes, and the giving up of one of them is a step for I would need serious reasons. In the meantime I am unaware of any such reasons. On the contrary, I know of serious reasons to hold onto both.
It is commonly assumed that atheism is a rational position and that religious belief is something mystical, which is unconnected to our normal logic, the type we use in science and daily life. But to me the opposite is true. In my opinion a rational world view leads to belief and requires it.
In fact, to the best of my judgment it is not possible to be a rational atheist. What I mean to argue is that not only is belief in God a conclusion which is necessary due to various rational considerations, but that belief is the only guarantee of a rational world view (including science). I should add that to me, the heaviest price I would have to pay is and when I give up my faith in God will be the giving up of rationality. This, for me, is the basic relationship between belief and science.
Belief and Science: Between Christianity and Judaism
Contradictions between belief and science are an old story. It seems to mostly occupy Christianity, Judaism – not so much (I am unfamiliar with the situation with Islam). In the Unites States dozens of books and hundreds of articles are written against Richard Dawkins and scientific atheism. Almost all these works were written by Christians; there are practically no books written by Jews on these matters, certainly in the last few years. My book ‘God Plays Dice’, which came out in Hebrew this year, is fairly unusual in this respect.
A fascinating phenomenon in terms of the sociology of religion, it also has to do with the contents and points of view of the different religions. In the Christian world (primarily the Catholic one) there is a Pope and the decision what is right or wrong is institutional. The Pope is the one who decides whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa. He is the one who decides if evolution is an acceptable theory and how to interpret it.
In contrast, in the Jewish world, at least until recent times, Judaism had no Popes. Those responsible for scientific and factual information are not the members of the Rabbinic establishment but various experts. Scientific statements do not require a Rabbinic seal of approval, and there are no procedures of change regarding the outlook towards facts, as there are in the Christian world. Already the Rambam, over 800 years ago, determined in his Guide to the Perplexed (Part II, Chapter 25):
(Note: Translation taken from here – AIWAC)
“WE do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God.”
Also later on the Rambam determines that if we have been convinced by a proof, scientific or philosophical, about any fact, then scriptures should not affect that conclusion. At most we will require creative interpretations, to allow scripture to fit our factual conclusions.
At the end of the day, in the Jewish world, scientific outlooks and conceptions are determined with scientific tools. There are a number of limits on this freedom (the Principles of Faith also deal with a number of facts: that God created the world, that he gave a Torah, that he monitors all that is going on and so on) but these are only a few very basic and general assertions, and certainly not any particular detail.
The Outline of the Discussion
It is the nature of conflicts between belief and science is that they are very emotionally charged on both sides (the atheists and the believers), a fact which often leads the discussion to abusive, slanted and off-topic. Both sides tend not to listen to each other, and therefore not to be convinced.
If we nevertheless wish to hold a rational and systematic discussion on these issues, it would seem to me that it would have to go like this: First, we must define the argument of the believer. Atheism will be defined as the negation of belief. For this we must define the content of belief (what is the God in which one believes in) and the location of belief in the human psyche (intellect, emotion &c).
Afterwards, we need to examine the ways in which we can establish faith, making use along the way of the different ways to accumulate information (like in science). Only after we have passed all these stages can we examine the relationship between belief in God and the results, findings and assumptions of science.
From the nature of things, the platform here is brief, and it will not allow me to be as descriptive as is appropriate when deals with such weighty and complex subjects. What I will try to do draft a slightly more detailed outline, which will offer a framework for contemplating and discussing these subjects. Every one of the readers can fill this framework according to his understanding and path.
Is Belief a Factual Argument?
Many people argue that belief is a matter for emotions and not the intellect. There are those who say it is ‘beyond the intellectual’ (what is that???). In a number of places one can see arguments that belief that belief does not concern facts but rather experiences and emotions, in other words it is something subjective.
From these approaches one can arrive at a conclusion that splits off in two ostensibly contradictory directions:
1. The strengthening of belief. If we are talking about something that does not deal with facts and makes no argument about them, then there is no need to struggle with conflicts with science. The problems dissipate by themselves.
Belief here gains automatic acceptance, which is characteristic of our post-modern world. It is a type of narrative, or feeling, and it is no worse than any other narrative. Belief turns into a position that cannot be attacked (I am not speaking of falsifiability, which we will touch on below), and thus exempt from defending itself.
2. The weakening of the significance of belief. If it is a subjective feeling, then there’s nothing real (except in the psychological sense), and therefore a declaration of belief is no more than a report of a psychological state, and not an argument about the world.
According to this approach we can assume that there is no place for belief in the factual-objective sense. Emotions are of course legitimate, as they are the private matter of the one who feels them. But bottom line – there is an assumption here that belief cannot be properly established, reasonable, or rational.
Although these arguments take belief into opposing directions, they are essentially two sides of the same coin. Since faith expresses a subjective feeling, it cannot be attacked. But this in itself derives from the fact that it doesn’t really argue anything.
Someone who declares their love for chocolate is not making a significant argument. He is declaring an emotion or some tendency within him, but there is no argument about the world which might cause an argument.
True or False?
I want to open this discussion by taking a position directly contrary to that which was described previously. For me, belief is an argument of fact. When I say I believe in God, I mean to make a factual argument: ‘there is a God’. If this is a true argument in my eyes, then from here we can derive the simple logical conclusion, that the argument that ‘there is no God’ is false.
The same is the case for the atheist position. This too is a position which makes a factual argument: ‘there is no God’. Therefore it is derived that the argument ‘there is a God’ is false. A factual argument, as opposed to experiences and emotions, is subject to the rules of logic, and if the argument is true then its opposite is false and vice versa.
From the above description it is clear that I am going for broke here. I intend to deny the possibility of the oh-so-comfortable retreat to the subjective, which absolves us from dealing with the questions.
It is important to understand that so far I have not argued that belief in God is correct, and I have certainly not explained why I think it is correct. All I have argued is that belief is a factual argument, whether true or false. The significance of this is that we must discuss it in terms of truth or falsehood, and the direction of retreating to the subjective which I described above is irrelevant.
As an anecdote I will add here, that as long as a discussion does not take place regarding the meaning of belief, it is not clear how we should regard the findings of various polls which show fantastic percentages of believers among the general populace.
When such a poll shows that 70-80% of the population believe in God, I assume that this includes a significant number of believers of the first type, the subjective-experiential-emotional, and only some of those defined as believers are believers in the ven I have described here. Therefore my inclination is to accord these polls a rather limited significance.
The Content of Faith: What Is God?
The next stage of the discussion should deal with the question of what is this thing of which I speak (or in whom I believe)? How do we define Him? After all there must be content to this belief in order to claim that it is a factual argument. The argument must contain something.
I won’t get into exhausting and not particularly fruitful debates here, and I will suffice for the sake of argument with God as an abstract entity, apparently with very great abilities, which created the world and runs it in some way.
On top of this general characterization one can continue to add various particular contents, such as the religious contents of different faiths (such as: this entity also brought us out of Egypt, and wrote and gave us a Torah at Mount Sinai. Or: this entity also revealed himself to Jesus and was embodied within him &c). The meaning of the distinction between these two levels will be discussed later on.
Ways of Establishing Faith
If we were dealing with faith in its subjective sense, then the question of how to verify and justify it would be irrelevant. But in light of the claim that it is a factual argument, the question of verification and establishing it becomes relevant and important.
Therefore the next stage in the discussion will be to examine what are the paths before us which can establish this factual argument, and what is the relationship between these paths and the paths in which we accumulate and establish scientific information.
On this subject there are two paths before us: empiricist and rationalistic (not: ‘rational’, as both paths claim rationality). Empiricism is an approach which believes in accumulating information solely through observation. Rationalism is willing to adopt information which derives from a priori philosophical considerations as well, in other word the results of thought and not just the results of observations. Later on we will see that this distinction is not as clear-cut as one might think.
Ostensibly the empirical path is not relevant to the question of belief, as there does not appear to be any way to observe God via the senses, or through any tools of measurement. Therefore, it appears that only the rationalistic path is open to us, in other words to derive His existence from different philosophical arguments. Is this truly the case?
Kant in his first Critique divides the possible proofs for God’s existence into three types:
1. An Ontological Consideration, which derives God’s existence from philosophical-conceptual study.
2. A Cosmological Consideration, which derives God’s existence from the very fact that something exists (the assumption is that everything must have a reason, or cause).
3. A Physical-Theological Consideration, which is sometimes called ‘argument from design’ (or from complexity. It means the use of the assumption that a complex object or something which appears to fit its purpose and appears to be designed, it is not reasonable to assume that it was made by itself. Therefore there must be something that created it).
The first type of argument is a priori, and therefore belongs entirely in the rationalistic category. The second type of argument already requires the result of observation, but in a very minimal sense: the fact that something exists.
The third type of argument is already on the line between the empiricist and the rationalistic. On the one hand, there is a reliance on very specific attributes of reality, and these are of course the result of observations (the fact that the world is complex and designed is not known to us a priori, but we become aware of it by observing the world).
On the other hand, the conclusion we arrived at does not belong to science, if only for the fact that it makes no predictions, and is therefore not scientifically verifiable or falsifiable. So it may be a conclusion from observation, but the conclusion itself does not belong to the scientific sphere.
In the following columns I will continue the outline shown here. Among other things, I will try to examine in detail the paths to arrive at belief, and primarily to compare them to the paths which we use in the framework of science. Afterwards I will get into examining the relationship between belief and science.