Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Allen Paulos' Irreligion

John Allen Paulos is generally an entertaining and intelligent writer, but Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains why the Arguments for G-d Just Don't Add Up may be the exception. A few thoughts:

1) If you try to use a saw to drive in a nail or a hammer to cut wood, you will probably not be successful, though I doubt anyone would conclude that nails and wood are therefore faulty building materials. Even if you use a saw to cut wood, I can attest from personal experience that your chances of accuracy and success are not the same as a carpenter's. Please, Mr. Paulos, stick to using math and logic to explain math and logic. These are not necessarily the best tools to analyze religion, and when wielded by an amateur the risk of harm outweighs any chance of good.

2) Imagine a two page summary of a book hundreds of pages long written by the most respected brain surgeons in the world. Imagine the summary concluding that these experts are wrong. Imagine the summary written by someone whose regular job is a plumber. Now you have a taste of Irreligion. I kid you not that most chapters are less than five pages, nor do I kid you that in less reading time than it takes for the commercials to play in a TV break Paulos thinks he has summarized and demolished centuries of philosophical speculation. The single word ga'avah kept running through my head.

3) Is there anyone out there who woke up one morning and said, "Eureka, I now believe because the ontological proof is so convincing!", or who went to sleep muttering, "I'm glad I read that proof by design because now I can resume praying"? I'm pretty confident that is not how faith works. If the "proofs" that Paulos addresses are not the cause of belief, can shattering them really call into question the reasons for anyone's faith?


  1. Actually, I'm one of those people who is very much motivated by the rationality of belief in God and Torah, not just faith (and note that Rambam, in Hilchos Yesodei Torah, writes that the yesod hay'sodos is "layda" - to know - and not merely "l'ha'amin" - to believe or have faith - that God exists).

    I haven't read Paulos' book, but I did use Amazon's "search inside the book" feature to see his "response" to the first cause argument. It's severly flawed, in the way that most responses to the first cause argument are flawed: it misstates the premises of the argument to ask "what caused god" or "if god is an exception, why can't the universe be an exception"

    Briefly, the first cause argument runs as follows:

    1) We know from science that all physical things require a cause

    2) Logically, you cannot have an infinite regression of causes; something must come first

    3) But we know from premise 1 that the first cause cannot be physical

    4) Ergo, there must have been a non-physical, uncaused cause that is responsible for the existence of the universe.

    5) Non-physical uncaused cause for existence = God.

    Paulos (and other critics) restate the argument thusly:

    1) Everything must have a cause

    2) You can't have an infinite regression of causes

    3) There must be a First Cause - God.

    Note the subtle shift in first premises - from "Everything physical must have a cause" to "everything must have a cause".

    Working from the latter premise, as Paulos does, his "critiques" make perfect sense. If "everything" must have a cause, then what caused God? And if God can be an exception, then why not the universe.

    Working from the former (accurate) premise, neither "critique" makes any sense at all. "What caused God" is a non-sequitur, since God is non-physical and the premise is only that physical things require a cause. Similarly, "well, if God can be uncaused, then why can't the universe be uncaused?" becomes a non-sensical question: God is not physical (and therefore not governed by the rule that physical things require a cause, or an exception to that rule) but the universe is decidedly physical, and therefore is governed by the rule of the first premise.

    Nor is limiting the premise to "everything physical" some form of special pleading or other cheat; the conclusion that "everything physical requires a cause" is a conclusion that is compelled by science. Science is, inherently, the study of the physical world, and - again, inherently - the laws derived from that study can only be said to apply to the physical. (note - whether there is such a thing as "non-physical" may be a separate argument, but - whatever its validity - it does not suffice as a critique of the internal logic of the argument from a First Cause).

    In sum - Paulos has a lot of fun knocking down a straw man.

  2. Paulos raises other objections that address your formulation: 1) How does a non-physical first cause bring about physical causation; 2) The identification of a non-physical first cause falls far short of identifying the G-d that we worship.

    BTW, rationality and proof are not the same thing. We make many decisions without absolute proof that are not irrational.

    What do you make of my third point -- did you wake up one day and read the first cause proof and then decide to believe, or did you believe first (for whatever reason) and appreciate this "proof" as a justification for what you know in your heart to be true?

  3. I'll respond to your comment backwards:

    Actually, as a kid going to a black hat mesivta in miami, I was very troubled by questions about how we could know that Torah was true, that God even existed, or that judaism was correct. It didn't help that the rabbis in the school tended to say things like "we don't ask those kinds of questions"; even at 13, I was smart enough to translate that as "I have no answer, we just believe."

    It was only when I switched out of that mesivta to a day school (that I was exposed to rebei'im who approached torah and yahadus with the idea that it made sense, that all questions lead to better understanding and that the application of rationality and logic leads to a deeper commitment to Judaism, because it *does* make sense. So for me, the first cause proof and other aspects of the rational approach to god and judaism were what kept me on the derech - not just some "feeling in my heart". (Ironically enough, I switched schools b/c the secular academics were better; it ended up being the better place religiously, too).

    Which leads to your second point. No, "rationality" and "proof" are not the same thing; but rationality requires, at a minimum, compelling evidence.

    As to the first, there are two responses. First, neither question comes anywhere close to meeting Paulos' stated goal of demolishing the First Cause argument; neither identifies a problem with the argument itself, merely point out that it does not "close the loop" from "First Cause" to "Hashem" (the second question) or leaves a gap in our knowledge of the mechanics (the first question). The second's a valid point, as far as it goes - but once you accept the existence of a non-physical First Cause, then the biggest obstacle to any belief in a particular religion (wait, how do you know God even exists?) is gone, and it simply becomes a matter of analyzing the next set of arguments (like, say, the proof of har sinai) from the starting point that at least a non-physical first cause exists (which eliminates the Occam's Razor arguments of "its simpler without inventing a non-physical being).

    The first question (how does it happen) is simply not a valid critique; "how" and "what" are two different questions, and the fact that we cannot answer one does not invalidate the answer to the other. That's easy enough to prove from science itself; the answer to "how does X work" is always and inherently preceeded by the observation/deduction "X happened".

    Of course, given the nature of "X" in this case, the nature of the ability of a non-physical first cause to affect the physical, there's no way to test the "how"; we simply lack the tools. But an inability to test the "how" is not a basis for escaping the "what" - the only way to deny the conclusion that a non-physical first cause is responsible for the existence of the physical universe is to deny the single premise of the argument - that all physical things/events require a cause.

    And I've yet to meet any rational thinker who was willing to do that.