Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Agnostic Fundamentalism?

"I find that I cannot conceive of a Universe that just sprang into existence by itself. I find that all the intricate and specific laws on which our Universe operates leads to an ordered existence that I cannot believe was a cosmic accident. I find that when I study the extremely intricate and complex biochemical pathways through which our cells produce energy or through which it stores genetic information or through anything that makes life as we know it possible I am struck with a sense of awe and I cannot make sense of it unless I suppose some kind of design."

This was posted by "Orthoprax" in a very interesting and honest self-assessment of his belief system. The writer is a ‘skeptical’ Orthodox Jew, who writes on topics related both to the practice of orthodoxy and its philosophical implications. (And, since it is a departure from Orthoprax’s usual skeptical outlook, Godol Hador dedicated a post to quoting and discussing his ideas.)

For all of my own agnosticism, I have a lot of empathy for this argument. This is a sort of composite of what I consider to be the two most compelling intuitive arguments for belief in a spiritual universe (or God, or creator, etc.).

1. The ‘First Fact’ problem: It seems that no matter how big the bang was, something must have pre-dated it. Time is, or at least appears to be, an infinite continuum, and either matter or energy had to exist for the bang to take place.

2. The ‘System Complexity’ problem: Evolution, as currently understood, seems to fall short in explaining how biological systems of such mind-boggling complexity such as DNA and the Optic Nerve could have developed, even with billions of years in which to evolve.

There are scientific theories which deal with these issues. For example, String Theory and General Relativity can produce a perpetual universe in which Time (as we experience it) is a variable which has relevance only to certain conditions.

Still, these are just theories, not answers, and I can well understand the choice which Orthoprax makes that believing in an intelligent creator is just more compelling. One cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, but don't these questions offer obvious hints?

So why don’t I choose to believe? How can I be so committed to agnosticism? And is it worth giving up faith in order to choose…nothing…uncertainty? What is the point of that?

Let me try to explain two postulates:

1. Where Science Ends, Mythology Begins:

Thousands of years ago, Man could not explain the rising and setting of the sun, the stars, nor the change of seasons. Perhaps some people had outlandish theories about planets and planetary motion, but these theories were far less compelling than the complex mythology which emerged and took hold. As the ability of science to explain the natural universe has expanded, the line of where mythology is used to fill in the gaps of understanding has receded (though not without a fight).

We find ourselves in the same position today, though we speak of more sophisticated issues. Currently, the frontier of scientifically proven understanding stands at the great questions of the origins and nature of the cosmos, and the mechanisms of the development of intelligent life. But we must still make the same decision as Mankind did at the dawn of history; do we assume that what we do not understand can not be explained rationally and create myths, or do we assume that our lack of understanding does not compel a supernatural answer.

It is very difficult to accept a world in which such obvious questions remain unanswered. We have the same primordial drive to understand our universe as our ancestors did. That desire - to understand our world - is what motivated ancient man to create pagan mythology, and it is the same urge which compels us to postulate a creator.

This does not negate, and certainly does not disprove, the theory of God, but to me it frames the problem differently. The unexplained phenomena which seems so compelling to us today are no more compelling than the onset of a rainstorm was to early man.

This leads to the second principle:

2. The Un-provability of God is, in Itself, Determinative:

If we can not prove or disprove God, what does that tell us about our life purpose? I understand the argument that, for the universe to offer freedom of choice, God can fundamentally not be provable. However, I do not agree with the corollary; that therefore belief in God is a righteous choice of faith.


To me, the opposite is true, if there is a God, He does not want us to suspend rational thought, He does not want us to use emotional arguments as proof of His existence(1), He does not want us to make a ‘best guess’ at His being, and He certainly does not want us to adopt belief as an expedient to avoid punishment or achieve reward.

Wouldn’t God want us to seek morality based upon what He actually gave us, not a myth of revelation, but a capacity to learn, to feel and to reason? Wouldn’t He want us to choose a life purpose which was meaningful and satisfying whether or not our existence ended with death or not – whether He exists or not?

And, certainly, if our religious beliefs hindered us by teaching us to subvert our reason, to doubt our own rational process, and to accept beliefs which were prejudiced and immoral, would it not be our higher calling to question these beliefs?

(1) Those emotions being our drive to understand our universe, to lend purpose to our lives, to avoid death, etc..


Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

1. The ‘First Fact’ problem: It seems that no matter how big the bang was, something must have pre-dated it. Time is, or at least appears to be, an infinite continuum, and either matter or energy had to exist for the bang to take place.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but time is certainly NOT an infinite continuum. There was no "before" the Big Bang. Time began there. See Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

April 04, 2006 1:53 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Not that I'm challenging your general point, but I'm not sure where you get the assumptions about the nature of G-d that fill the end of your post.

To me, the opposite is true, if there is a God, He does not want us to suspend rational thought, He does not want us to use emotional arguments as proof of His existence(1), He does not want us to make a ‘best guess’ at His being, and He certainly does not want us to adopt belief as an expedient to avoid punishment or achieve reward.

Um...how do you know? Maybe God is absolutely nothing like what you think? I mean, Orthoprax is simply positing a Creator- why does that carry with it any of these assumptions as to His nature and desires? Once you're starting from baseline, you should have no assumptions about the nature of this deity. Why, theoretically, can't there be a God who wants us to subvert reason? Or to deny morality? Or even who just created us because He likes to watch people suffer. I mean, none of these are the God in whom I believe, but we're not debating His existance, but rather that of some Creator, with character traits that are yet to be determined.

April 04, 2006 2:14 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I did read Brief History of Time. As I said, the explinations are theories. They haven't been proven as of yet. Since they are so non-intuitive with our experiance of time, I understand the instinct to offer supernatural explinations.

That is sort of my point:

At some point in the future, it is very possible that people will naturaly integrate these theories into their understanding of the universe. At that point, the first fact will be no more of a problem than sunrise.

April 04, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger Mis-nagid said...

"Evolution, as currently understood, seems to fall short in explaining how [...] DNA and the Optic Nerve could have developed"

That's just wrong. Not debatable, wrong.

First, evolution covers the optic nerve beautifully, both historically and developmentally. It also explains why the optic nerve in humans is such a screwup, penetrating the retina to reach the inside-out see-through neurons (!), creating a nasty blind-spot that the brain paints over to create an illusion of continuity. Check out an octopus eye for how do do it right.

Second, evolution doesn't need to explain where DNA came from any more than it needs to explain how planet Earth formed. That just not what it's supposed to be explaining.

I know it's only a minor part of your post, but you seriously misunderstand evolution.

April 04, 2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


What are you talking about, the Torah says "rav chessed v'emes". Oh, right, I don't believe all that stuff. Okay, good question.

The point is that, since the nature of God, or even the existance of God, is unknowable, we must use the tools which are available to us to determine how to live.

If there is no God, I would want to live a life which is moral, altruistic and self-actualizing.

If there is a God, I would want to live the same way.

If it turns out that God is an evil prankster, then I'd still rather live that way and face the hellfires.

April 04, 2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


You may be right. The truth is that I've never done any serious reading on evolution. (And perhaps I still carry an artifact of skepticism from my yeshiva days.)

However, I do understand optical systems pretty well, and what humans can do in terms of adaptive focus, dynamic range, resolving power, feature extraction, etc., etc., is completely amazing. Heck, just the data transfer mechanism alone is unbelivable. And all in that nice ultra-compact low power package. Nice color options too.

If you have any reckomended reading for the recovering believer, it would be most welcome.

April 04, 2006 3:29 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Right. But then your philosophy is about your actions, not about your belief in God or lack thereof. In other words, you're saying that God's existance is irrelevant, instead of debating whether it's true or false.

April 04, 2006 3:38 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

Agnosticism is a very entrenched ideal. Most would say the atheist is at one end of the spectrum and the theist at the other, but that isn't so.

The agnostic doubts the human ability to know, and therefore no matter what proof or rationale one would offer, it would be essentially meaningless to him.

I don't mean to imply that being 'sure' of something means that it is necessarily true, but the mind-set that allows for nothing other than doubt, is not, as we genrally consider, a compromise between faith and science.

April 04, 2006 4:08 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


You're right. My point of view is that there is no way to rational way to prove or disprove God's existance. What I think is important is not to debate what we can't know, but to divine what we should do from what we do know.

April 04, 2006 4:15 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


You may be right about agnosticism being as entrenched a belief system as theism or atheism. Although, I didn't start here. I did try to work through a number of systematic approaches to belief. (From the Moreh to Spinoza, Kaplan to Adler.) So I feel that I’m an erlach agnostic.

Having said that, I certainly am the skeptic's skeptic. I tend to be dismissive of all sorts of soft science conclusions, and often hate the sweeping, detailed conclusions of archeological anthropologists. I am generally much more comfortable with ideas which are presented as possible theories rather than proven fact.

Perhaps it is a reflection of my own life position. It is more important for me to shed old myths right now than to adopt new beliefs. My bumper sticker would say “No more bubah maisehs”.

April 04, 2006 4:33 PM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

"evolution doesn't need to explain where DNA came from"

Why not? DNA has an evolutionary history also, does it not? Or do you mean that evolution doesn't have to explain the chemistry of DNA?

April 05, 2006 5:03 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


A couple of thoughts on your post.

Regarding point 1, - it seems reasonable to assume that something predated the Big Bang, but only because of the way we understand the current Universe (which is poorly :)).
But certainly conceptually, say in analytic geometry, it is easy to construct a vector which has a starting point, but projects to infinity. Why is this so inconceivable in the physical world?

Regarding point 2(complexity). Have you ever read "A New Kind of Science"? The fundamental premise of the book is that humans assume that when they see a complex entity, it had to have been constructed through a complex process. The author illustrates how through simple construction algorithms that iterate millions of time you can achieve amazing levels of complexity, including randomness.

April 06, 2006 10:23 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


Both good points.

Regarding (1), just saying that infinity can exist in nature (or that nature is infinit) is a sort of circular argument to me. What is, is. But how. Even by Hawkings theory of the recent birth of time, there was energy and/or matter which exists 'before' (I understand that the concept of ordered events doesn't quite fit) the birth of time. What I agree with most is that we just have a limited understanding of the universe. We have only had General Reletivity for about 90 years, and it has only been accepted for about 70. There are more Einstiens and Newtons and Bohrs, ect. to come.

I get your second point as well & will look up the book. I certainly understand how laws which we can define and test make evelutions an inevitable part of nature. But, I have trouble dismissing how amazing it is that these systems have achieved what they have.

Can I ask you something. Are you a bit surprised at how agressive some of the comments from the atheists were? I mean, I thought that my post was far more dismissive of believers.

April 06, 2006 2:07 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I can't divine the reason for the aggressive response of the atheists, but if I were to guess it is probably a combination of being miffed at Orthoprax's reversion back to some form of Belief, and your seeming relativism in treating science and faith as similarly unproven. Not that I am saying this is what you are doing, just that that is the general feeling one gets from your post. And given the current nonsense with creationists and such, it is probably a sore point for the atheists.

April 06, 2006 2:54 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


Tell me, what do you think about free will? Are you undecided about that?

April 07, 2006 5:51 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


"There was no "before" the Big Bang. Time began there."

True, it does say that. But even here we suffer from the issue of cause. Did the universe just pop into existence by itself?


"Second, evolution doesn't need to explain where DNA came from any more than it needs to explain how planet Earth formed. That just not what it's supposed to be explaining."

Well, actually, given that the current popular hypothesis of early life is that of an RNA world, the rise of DNA is surely within its purview.

April 07, 2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


For the record, I'm not 'undecided' about God. Undecided implies that there is a decision to make. It would be like trying to decide whether it is going to snow in Burendi on this day in 2056. There is no way to know this, no measurement which can shed light. Any 'belief' which I can adopt would be based on non-rational means. I can decide what I wish to believe, but I can not decide if there is a God.

Man has free will.

A persons choices are influenced by many factors. Some apparent and some not. This can make choice more difficult, or even diminish ones capacity for decision making. However, the choice is still in our hands.

April 07, 2006 6:55 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


"Man has free will."

What are you basing that on? We live in a world of cause and effect. Where do you get the idea that the human mind is somehow divorced from reality and can produce uncaused causes?

Are the physical and chemical processes in your brain not bound by cause and effect? Where does _free_ choice come from?

All of your opinions, your desires, and your inclinations are founded on causative principles which existed before you were even born. Where is free will in this unfree determinism?

(Or if you're fond of QT, where is free will in boundless randomness? Random will is not free.)

I submit that your belief in free will is not based on rational grounds.

(Btw, I read my post over and it seems a little forceful. I didn't mean to phrase it that way. Just take it as constructive criticism.)

April 08, 2006 9:15 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

"I can decide what I wish to believe, but I can not decide if there is a God."

Yes, that might be true in a purely rational positivist manner of thinking. But if the position is important to the way you live or the way you think then you are making a de facto decision on what you believe because it reflects in how you act and think.

You have to decide to act as if something is so or if something is not so.

April 08, 2006 9:42 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I'm sorry as well to have been so curt.

As I sit here, I see a computer screen. It is my observed experiance which is confirmed by the senses which I poses and the conventions which mankind uses to define such objects.

What we do every waking second of every day is make choices. It your innate experiance of everything. You are choosing whether to read this or not. The fact that there are inputs to your own mind which influence your choices does not negate this.

That is it in a nutshell. I can expand later about this and how the unknowability of God differes from this later if you are up for it.

April 09, 2006 7:37 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...


"The fact that there are inputs to your own mind which influence your choices does not negate this."

No, the point is not that you have these other influences. The point is that you as a neurological system given a certain set of data and given certain inclinations and desires will choose exactly the same way every single time.

Suppose on some Sunday morning you walk into a bar and you order a martini. Is there any possible world where you could not have ordered that martini?

In order for you to act differently you'd need to change some circumstance in the external world or inclination within yourself.

Where does free will come from when your choices are determined (not just "affected" - wholly determined) by circumstances not in your control?

You are a machine that crunches numbers and will come out with the same result every time. Only if you change the input or the program itself can you change the output.

It is true that you perceive yourself making choices. You "feel" that that is the way your mind works. But people can likewise claim to "feel" all sorts of things that you would not believe to be true. In order to find yourself on truly rational grounds then you need to find grounds besides your subjective feelings to find that it is so.

(Again, not meaning to be so terse.)

April 10, 2006 12:33 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


While I understand the point which you are making, I really think that you are comparing two virtually opposite types of conclusions.

I observe myself making choices. This is not a subjective statement. It is an objective statement based on my experience within the human convention of the description of the experience. I therefore conclude that I have the capacity to make choices. You are simply saying that my (and humanity's) experiances may be illusions. This is like saying "you may not exist". Perhaps, but it is our common experiance that we do.

Your point about the deterministic nature of ‘machines’ may or may not be right, we currently do not know enough about the human mind to say, but it is a theory which contradicts the objective fact which I (and you and everyone else) experiences.

Regarding God, the opposite is true. You observe a natural world. That is your experience. Postulating a supernatural deity is not (in and of itself) contrary to our observations, but postulating the absence of a deity is also not contrary. Any conclusion is based not on observations but on your beliefs.

April 10, 2006 8:37 PM  
Blogger Zetetic said...


You may find this Pharyngula post about Abiogenesis interesting.


Here's a page on the evolution of the human eye. Talk.Origins also discusses the evolution of the eye and color vision here.

April 11, 2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger Fallowyn said...

The god of Abraham is a jealous and vengfull god. Mercifull at times. and he does offer freedom of choice death or life make your choice. =)

June 30, 2006 12:46 PM  
Blogger Fallowyn said...

I do believe that with out a set of moral guide lines. Civilization would not be possible. whatever god you choose or choose not to choose, is unimportant. The important thing is that with out those guidelines, there would be no good nor evil.

June 30, 2006 12:54 PM  
Blogger Fallowyn said...

there would be no morality. Makeing us no more than animals. the only accountance being living or dead.

June 30, 2006 12:57 PM  
Blogger Fallowyn said...

I am Wondering why poeple are so afraid to go beyond what is allready written. And think for themselfs, instead of just qouting an author, or verse. what if stephen hawkings is wrong? If time is limited?, Then when will time end? Even god says that his followers will live for eternity in heaven. And it says in revelation that heaven will be brought down to earth, i know i'm quoting the bible but it's just to proove a point time is infinate. to believe that time is limited is limited thinking

June 30, 2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger Fallowyn said...

Time begining with the big bang, is like saying the orange juice began in the supermarket, what was there before the bang , Nothing? There must of been something. Space was there before the bang maybe our universe is a very small part of a greater whole. the bang is like mytholigy, and "Time", Man made up the big bang to explain the origins of the universe they have no evidence of it. only that the planets and solar systems appear to be moving away from each other. the ones we can percieve anyway man only knows what he can touch and feel and see and hear. those are only 4 dimensions of perception.

June 30, 2006 2:17 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Four things:
1) God is like any other scientific theory. It has two parts at its base- universe was designed and God exists. Unfortunately there is no evidence for either. Given the fact that if there was then it would be obvious that God doesn't exist.
2) In addition God can be disproven by evidence and logic. For example the universe exists, and yet a God would have no reason to vreate a universe.
3) DNA evolving off of RNA does fall under the perview of evolutionary theory. RNA forming into life forms falls under chemistry.
4) Free will doesn't exist. Sorry. It isn't an alternative between Free will and Determinism- it is an alternative between Free Will and randomness. Here- I'll give you an example.

"You are put in a holodeck and lead through the simulation. At the end your memory of it is wiped and you start again. If things such as being tired, felling hungry and the like are controled for, will your actions be different each time you go in? The answer is no. You will react to each situation the same way each time. The alternative is that you act differantly each time- in other words, you act randomly."

Of course this covers absolute determinism. Other forms are so easy to give answers to.

April 20, 2008 12:33 AM  

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