Love is not the Answer

Coming up with some good “famous last words” is a real challenge.

For one thing, you’re working under pressure. You’re not sure when your final breath will come, and you want it to be worth taking.

For another thing, you’ve got a bunch of people standing around your bed, waiting for you to say something profound and then expire. Preferably in that order.

By the way, I’m not dying, lest I get a lot of worried emails.

It is true that the cashier at McDonalds this evening gave me a “senior discount” on my coffee, and I’m not sure if I should be insulted or just happy to have saved some money.

I’m going to go with “happy.” To an 18-year-old cashier, all people over 40 look like they have one foot in the grave. When I drew a secret-agent comic strip in high school, I made the main character 26 years old, which seemed middle-aged to me. It seems a lot younger now.

But “famous last words” are supposedly a clever way to get to my main topic: the limits of compassion. So please bear with me for another paragraph or two.

Ludwig Wittgenstein did pretty well with his famous last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” James T. Kirk, not so well: If memory serves, his famous last words will be “Oh, my,” a phrase more commonly associated with Mr. Sulu.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous last words are in his Ninth Symphony, and they’re hard to beat even though he got them from Schiller:

“Joy, daughter of Elysium

Thy magic reunites those

Whom stern custom has parted;

All men will become brothers

Under thy gentle wing.”

Shakespeare’s version of King Henry IV did pretty well. Speaking to his son, Prince Hal, he said:

“How I came by the crown, may God forgive,

And grant that it may with thee in true peace live.”

However, it is the famous author Gertrude Stein who provides the segue to our main topic. When Ms. Stein lay dying, her companion Alice B. Toklas whispered to her:

“Gertrude. Gertrude. What is the answer? What is the answer?”

Ms. Stein opened her eyes and said: “What is the question?” And then she died.

So now, finally, we get to the point: Contrary to popular belief, love is not the answer: it’s the question.

“Do the loving thing” isn’t a helpful answer because it poses two further questions:

  • Why should we do the loving thing?
  • What is the loving thing to do in a particular situation?

Presumably, we should do the loving thing to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. That’s why.

But we’re not quite done yet. The what question depends on whose happiness and suffering we’re trying to affect.

If we can make some people happy without making anyone else suffer, then there’s no problem at all. Other things being equal, that’s the loving thing to do. It’s all good.

However, the opposite is more common: different people have different interests, desires, and moral values. If you help one group, you hurt others.

In those cases, you have to make some uncomfortable decisions. Who counts? Everyone? Then you’re in a bind:

  • If you do nothing, then you fail to increase the happiness of one group but don’t cause suffering to the other group.
  • If you do something, then you increase the happiness of one group by causing suffering to the other group.

How can you decide which alternative is better? There’s no provable answer.

Alternatively, you might decide that everyone doesn’t count. Some people are just so wicked that their happiness doesn’t deserve any consideration.

You might think that it’s a hard decision to make, but people make it all the time. The only thing that changes is the hated out-group whose suffering doesn’t matter. If you’re a thoughtful person, you need to be aware of issues like that. It won’t make the decisions for you, but at least you’ll know what you’re doing. You won’t be acting blindly.

Another problem with trying to do “the loving thing” is that it relies on our emotions. Propagandists know exactly how to bypass people’s cognitive faculties and inflame their emotions. When people’s emotions are aroused, they often can’t think clearly even if they try, which they usually don’t. It’s downright scary to see intelligent people reacting to images or memes just like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when they hear a bell.

If I had the solutions to these problems, I’d give them to you. I don’t. But I still think we’re better off being aware of the problems than if we’re totally clueless about them.

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How to Handle Talking About God

How can we talk about God?

For our distant ancestors, it was an easy question. They thought of God as being like a human, only bigger, more powerful, and immortal. He lived in the universe but hadn’t created it. He was finite. For them, talking about God was no more difficult than talking about Jeremiah or Sarah. They could attach a mental picture to the name “God.”

But for us, it’s not that easy. We think of God as being transcendent, infinite, and beyond our understanding. He does not have a physical body like we do. He’s not like anything we can know or understand.

So when we say “God exists” or “God is good,” what do we think we’re talking about? What meaning do we assign to the name “God”?

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers have grappled with the problem for over a thousand years. In Medieval times, Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides took a whack at it, as did Thomas Aquinas. In our own time, Alvin Plantinga and other philosophers of religion have tried as well.

There are a lot of unreasonable answers to the question. There are also two reasonable answers that complement each other.

Among the unreasonable answers is that we’re not talking about anything. We’re just uttering nonsense. Many 20th-century thinkers held that view. Philosopher A.J. Ayer gave its most notorious formulation in his book Language, Truth, and Logic:

“To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”

By “literal” he means “empirically verifiable,” so in his own terms, Ayer isn’t completely wrong. But his view is unreasonable because statements about God influence everything from laws and social institutions to people’s behavior and their view of the universe. Its meaning might not be entirely clear, but it’s not nonsense.

As for the two reasonable answers, the first is that “God” means a Being (1) whose activities are described in the Bible and (2) whose attributes are discussed by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology. I omit other theistic faiths only because I don’t know their views about Divine transcendence.

Meaning typically connects one thing to another thing, neither of which has to be linguistic:

  • An old song reminds me of my college girlfriend and is thereby meaningful to me.
  • Dark clouds mean rain might be coming.
  • “Ich liebe dich” means “I love you,” which in turn means “je t’aime.”
  • The Bible says that God gave the Torah to Moses, so “God” means “the Being who gave the Torah to Moses.”
  • If God is the first Being and the first Being created the world, it means that God created the world.
  • If God is one, it means that God is not two or three.

Those are all statements that connect beliefs about God and thereby give meaning to the word “God” by the role the word has in the beliefs and in their connections.

The second reasonable answer is that “God” serves as a linguistic handle that connects our beliefs to other things. The other things might be known, unknown, or even unknowable.

Handles are words or phrases that let us think about complex subjects without needing to think of all their details. For example, “dog” lets you talk about dogs in general, without thinking about all the 330+ different breeds of dog. “The quadratic formula” lets you talk about a way to solve equations. You don’t need to know the formula to do it. You can talk about the formula as long as you know enough about it to use the phrase as a handle.

Likewise, we know or believe a few things about God: the Bible, theology, and so forth. That little bit of knowledge enables us to use the word “God” as a handle, connecting us both to things we can know and understand, as well as to things we can neither know nor understand (or even be sure that there’s anything to know).

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You Can’t Prove God — and It Doesn’t Matter

You can’t logically prove God’s existence. And it doesn’t matter.

When people ask for a proof of God’s existence, they almost always want a logical proof. That kind of proof uses the laws of logic to go from premises to a conclusion.

The first-cause (“cosmological”) argument for God’s existence is an example:

  1. Everything has a cause.
  2. The world is a thing.
  3. Therefore, the world has a cause.

If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. You don’t even need to know what the argument is about. Any argument in that form has a true conclusion if its premises are true:

  1. Every A is B.
  2. X is an A.
  3. Therefore, X is B.

However, there are three problems with the first-cause argument.

The first problem is that nobody really believes in premise 1. People who make the first-cause argument say that God does not have a cause. But if God doesn’t have a cause, then it’s not true that everything has a cause. Instead of God, you could just as easily say that the universe itself doesn’t have a cause. And that ends the first-cause argument.

The second problem is that the first-cause argument doesn’t really stop with its conclusion that the world has a cause. It adds that the cause is God. Logic doesn’t support any addenda. The argument can prove that “X is B,” but it can’t also prove that “Oh, by the way, B is G” (i.e., the Biblical God).

The third problem afflicts all logical arguments for God’s existence, at least in Judaism and Christianity. Those faiths say that God transcends human understanding, so we can’t give any logical meaning to the word “God.” Therefore, any statement we make about God seems logically meaningless. It might refer to something — indeed, to something supremely important — but we literally don’t know what we’re talking about. We’re saying some words but we have no idea of what we’re saying. That’s not a proof, nor even an argument.

However, the basic error in making arguments for God’s existence is much simpler. It’s the assumption that logical arguments are the only way to prove things. They’re not.

Can you prove that the color red exists? Of course you can. You point to a red thing, and say “Look at that. It’s red.” If a person can see the color red, no other proof is necessary. If a person can’t see the color red, no other proof is reasonably possible. Pointing to things is called ostensive proof, as opposed to logical, discursive proof.

The only proof of God’s existence that’s really convincing is ostensive proof. Through prayer or meditation, we can try to open our minds to a reality beyond our ordinary experience. And most of us find something there, a feeling of transcendence. We don’t understand it and we can’t explain it. Theists call it God. Atheists call it natural law or the majesty of the universe. Each of us interprets it in terms of concepts and stories in which we already believe: the Bible, physics, or as we mathematicians sometimes say, “God is a mathematician.”

So you can’t prove God in a logical sense, simply because you can’t prove something you can’t define.

All you can really do is offer an ostensive argument: Open your mind and reach out to the transcendent. You’ll find something supremely good. Call it what you like. But call it. It will answer your call.

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Truth in All Its Varieties

“’What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

A lot of people think that quote is in the Bible, but it really isn’t. It’s Francis Bacon’s riff on the New Testament’s Gospel of John, verse 18:38:

“Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”

In any event, Pilate did not stay around for an answer. And it’s just as well that he didn’t. The answer might have been more complicated than he expected.

These thoughts are prompted by “Are Religion and Science Compatible?”, a fine essay by Steven Williams at his blog A Questioner’s Journey. I don’t agree with all of its conclusions, but it’s well worth reading.

The essay covers a lot of ground, so I’ll focus on a central point. According to Williams, truth is “what aligns with reality, or describes what the universe is in fact like.”

That’s our common-sense view of truth: a true belief corresponds to one or more facts in the world. Most people, including most philosophers, never think any more about it. But is that the only kind of truth?

All theories of truth define truth as a relation between a belief and something else. They disagree mainly about what the “something else” is. For Williams, the something else is one or more non-mental facts verified by science or simple observation. Hence, like Spinoza, he sees in the Bible only a mishmash of legends and contradictions.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I propose that if a large number of sane, educated, intelligent people say that something is true, then there’s probably at least some sense in which it is true. And the sense in which it’s true is the reason why they say it. It’s the “something else.”

We get into trouble mainly when we get confused about what kind of something else is relevant to particular beliefs.

And we do both believers and non-believers a disservice if we assume that “factual truth” is the only kind.

Consider some things that sane, intelligent, educated people might claim are true:

  1. There is a pencil on the desk.
    That fits Williams’s concept of truth. There’s a fact we can see. (It’s not quite that simple, but close enough.)
  2. A hundred years ago, there was another desk in the same spot.
    That kind of fits, but not as easily. There is currently no fact to which the belief corresponds.
  3. If you had a time machine, you could see the desk on that spot 100 years ago.
    Well, maybe. Show me the time machine and we’ll talk. For now, there’s no fact to match the belief. It doesn’t fit.
  4. John is true to himself.
    The belief as a whole can fit, at least with a little pushing. But the idea of someone being “true to himself” makes no sense on Williams’s definition.
  5. You have a civic duty to vote.
    That doesn’t fit. There is no fact corresponding to a duty to vote.
  6. The tangent of an angle equals the angle’s sine divided by its cosine.
    That doesn’t fit. There’s no corresponding fact in the world.
  7. God exists.
    That couldn’t fit any “fact” unless you defined God as finite and perceivable, which Biblical religions do not. Even so, billions of people insist that it’s true. Lots of them have jobs, families, and college degrees. They obey the law. They’re lucid in conversation. They’re neither stupid nor insane.
  8. Electrons are negatively charged particles with spin 1/2.
    That doesn’t fit. Electrons aren’t anything like the normal meaning of the description, so it’s a metaphor for something we can’t quite imagine: ironically, in that way it’s like statements about God.

All those cases involve some kind of relation, but only the first two involve relations between beliefs and what we take as “facts.” As for the rest:

  • The belief about a time machine is true relative to an imaginable situation that doesn’t currently exist and might never exist.
  • The belief about John is true relative to John and his sincere moral beliefs. The “truth of John to himself” is consistency between John’s behavior and his beliefs.
  • The belief about a duty to vote is true relative to desirable behavior that the believer wants to encourage.
  • The belief about the tangent of an angle is true relative to definitions of trigonometry and mathematical methods of proof.
  • The belief about God is true relative to a particular foundational description of the world that has been socially and morally (albeit imperfectly) helpful.
  • The belief about electrons is true relative to physical theories and measurements made with scientific equipment.

Beliefs are never true or false relative to brute facts, because we never know any of those. To know anything, we must first bring it into a system of concepts and beliefs. We relate it, classify it, and compare it with other things.

Religious beliefs are typically true or false relative to particular texts and traditions that the believers hold sacred. Such beliefs can have significant moral and social benefits, though an honest accounting must concede that they sometimes also cause harm. In his book God and the Bible, 19th-century British social critic Matthew Arnold said it well:

“At the present moment, two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.”

The same applies to any Biblically-based religion. People need moral guidance; they can’t just make it up as they go along. They also need a sense of accountability, a sense that it matters whether or not they live morally. Religious faith is one way to get those things. It’s not the only way, but it’s a way that’s accessible to most people. Abstract and esoteric philosophies aren’t so accessible.

As for any conflicts between religious truth and factual truth, they’re not a problem unless we confuse one kind of truth for the other. The late Harvard philosopher Hillary Putnam was both a scientific materialist and an observant Jew. How did he reconcile the two worldviews? He didn’t:

“As a practicing Jew, I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important … Those who know my writings from that period may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak … and my general scientific materialist worldview at that time. The answer is that I didn’t reconcile them. I was a thoroughgoing atheist, and I was a believer. I simply kept these two parts of myself separate.”

Putnam found value in both kinds of truth, albeit different kinds of value. So can we.

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Reclaiming Israel’s Reputation

Reclaiming-Israels-History

I’ve started reading David Brog’s excellent new book Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace.

I’ll post a full review later, but the initial paragraphs of the book describe a situation that seems eerily familiar:

“There was a time when Israel could do no wrong. Before 1967, Americans and most other Westerners typically saw Israel as an embattled outpost of democracy heroically defending itself from Arab multitudes determined to destroy it. Israel’s civilians were gutsy. Israel’s soldiers were gallant. Israel’s wars were good.

This myth of the perfect Israel could not last. No nation is so noble and no cause so pure. Israel has committed sins both small and large …

The problem is that the very facts that helped destroy one false narrative are now being used to construct a new one. The myth of the perfect Israel is being replaced by the myth of the evil Israel.”

In more ways than one, America and Israel share common problems and a common destiny. We must support and learn from each other.

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Translating the Bible for Our Era

Aaron Koller, Ben Sommer and Tamar Kamionkowski

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

What difference does a translation make?

If we take the Torah seriously, a lot. Whether we believe it was given by God to Moses, or only that it’s the foundational text of our identity as Jews, we want to get it right.

Most of us today can’t read Hebrew very well. It’s a defect we share with the ancient Jewish community in Alexandria, where scholars translated the Torah into Greek because many Jews knew little or no Hebrew. That produced the Septuagint, the first known Torah translation.

And linguistic translation is only half the battle. Even if we can read Hebrew, we often lack the knowledge required to interpret Biblical passages. We don’t know the historical context, so we miss references to ideas, people, and events that were obvious to people in Biblical times.

Robert Alter gives an excellent analogy in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Imagine, he says, that archaeologists a thousand years in the future find a dozen 20th-century movies that are Westerns. They notice a pattern: in 11 of the films, the heroic sheriff can draw his six-gun faster than anyone else in the movie. In the 12th film, however, the sheriff has a crippled arm. Instead of a six-gun, he uses a rifle he keeps slung over his shoulder.

As 21st-century viewers, we easily recognize the conventional storyline of the first 11 films. We see that the 12th film intentionally departed from it. However, the future archaeologists don’t know about the conventions. Therefore, they posit the existence of an undiscovered source film, Q, from which the first 11 films (Q1 to Q11) were derived. They believe that the 12th film comes from a different cinematic tradition, and perhaps from a different region of Los Angeles.

Like the archaeologists, we often must guess at the conventions in the Biblical text that were obvious to people of that era. Note that in this case, it makes no difference whether God gave the Torah to Moses or it was assembled by human editors. To communicate the message adequately, either source would have used conventions and references familiar to the people of the time.

A good translation won’t solve those problems completely, but it can help by providing notes and alternative phrasings.

Historical change didn’t stop with Biblical times. If anything, it has accelerated. A lot has changed since 1917, when the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) issued its first English translation of the Torah.

  • In 1915 (before 1917, but close enough), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held a White House screening of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was a nationwide box-office hit.
  • In 1920, American women got the right to vote.

Change continued after 1962, when JPS published its second translation of the Torah:

  • In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.
  • In 1969, Yale admitted its first female students; Harvard followed in 1977.
  • In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws against homosexuality; in 2015, it struck down state restrictions on gay marriage.

Translation doesn’t simply match words in different languages. It reflects our culture and assumptions. We shape each translation for our own era, and in turn, we are shaped by it. For the Bible, we need to know how the translation affects the message.

That was one focus of the symposium, “The Future of American Jewish Bible Translation,” held April 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It commemorated the 1917 JPS translation, whose goal was “to combine the Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern.”

In the hundred years since then, the goal hasn’t changed but many other things have. New discoveries have confirmed or challenged our copies of the text. Before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Torah manuscripts dated from the Middle Ages. The Dead Sea Scrolls come from a thousand years earlier.

Similarly, changed social and religious attitudes make us ask new questions about the text. When the text says “man,” does it mean males specifically, or people in general? How should we translate passages that we find morally unsettling?

One approach to troubling passages is “converse translation,” which changes or even reverses the meaning of the original text. It was used as long ago as the Septuagint and ancient Targums (interpretive retellings of the Biblical text). In spite of its historical pedigree, converse translation had few fans at the JPS conference.

“The classical rabbis often read against the text to offer an ethical ideal unsupported by a ‘plain reading’ of the Bible,” said Leonard Greenspoon, one of the conference speakers. However, he added, “Bible translators have a responsibility to call attention to morally difficult passages. Notes can be effective for that.”

(Audio and photos from the symposium are available on the Jewish Publication Society’s YouTube channel.)

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Who Counts? We all do.

Who-Counts-book

I normally don’t review children’s books, but this one’s a keeper.

Who Counts? combines simple, direct storytelling with superb artwork and morally uplifting themes.

Its authors, a rabbi and a professor of Jewish Studies, retell three of Jesus’ parables from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15: the lost sheep, the lost piece of silver, and the lost son.

Though it might seem odd, the book’s use of stories from the Christian New Testament was quite deliberate. It illustrates that whatever else he might have been, Jesus was a Jewish teacher. In their basic attitudes toward life, morality, and priorities, Judaism and Christianity agree more often than not.

The book’s clear prose style, familiar words, and easily-understood morals will appeal to younger children. Its third story (the lost son) is a bit more layered than the first two. It touches lightly on emotional conflicts that many children experience. Thus, it provides a good starting point for supportive and heartfelt conversations between parent and child.

According to the authors, “All three stories are about the importance of making sure that everyone counts … [and] that everyone feels counted, no one is overlooked, discounted. The book is a counting book, in both senses of the term.”

Many social maladies stem from people feeling as if they don’t count. Who Counts? is an excellent, entertaining book to help children grow up into responsible, caring adults.

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