Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just Wondering

I've actually been wondering this ever since I read Descartes (I adore how pretentious that sounds). So for the whole intellectualism/skepticism/agnosticism whatnot, one must eliminate all a priori assumptions, no? But how does one get by with eliminating the assumption that the human intellect is in any way useful at discovering the truth? I mean, why should we possibly assume that that which seems logical to us has any correlation with reality? And if the answer is that it has seemed in the past to do so, then we just get circular because 1)why should we assume that 'past performance gaurantees future results' and 2) how do we know that the reality that was previously conceived actually meant anything?

Meaning that: how is it possible to eliminate one enormous a priori assumption when making any attempt to understand anything?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Legal Codes

I haven't posted in a bit for a very good reason, and the very good reason was not that I was overwhelmingly busy with work, because I wasn't really, but because I did not feel like doing so. Didn't have much anything to say. I'm starting to think that I'm over this whole blog fad thing, but I hope that is not true, firstly because it's so cool to be able to say that you have a blog and secondly, because it's so darn useful when you find that you have something to say. As is the case now.

There are certain complaints about Judaism that are nothing short of classic. This post, for example, raises the always popular 'how can G-d fall for loopholes' question, not to mention the 'why does G-d care about details' one and the 'why should we listen to law made up by people thousands of years ago with no sense of modern values and whatnot' (which can be applied to Torah, Talmud, or later Poskim depending on the questioner).

All lovely questioners and fodder for as many mussar/kiruv shmoozes as they are for disenchanted ex-yeshiva rants. But I think that the questions stem from a view of Judaism that is simply skewed.

Judaism- by which I mean the halachic system- is a legal code. Not a set of morals or a philosophy book or a self-help book. Legal. And as such, it is going to have certain traits that are inherent in any legal code.

Conservativism, for example. Any legal code is inherently conservative, based on precedent and resisting any changes. That's what makes it a binding general social set of norms and not just 'what I woke up and felt like doing this morning'. So, yeah, it's going to be based on things that may not be strictly relevant today. Deal with it. And, if the system of law is any good, you have plenty of ways of dealing with it perfectly well. In such cases that legislation is out of the picture, interpretation, application, and enforcement give the legal system plenty of leeway to avoid gross injustices. Except in such cases as the law specifically demands the gross injustice and then you're already dealing with a different problem- that you think that the legal code is messed up and immoral, not that its contemporary application is unfit.

Loopholes, for another example. Almost all systems of law are deontological and not simply teleological. They care about the means and not the ends. An example from this book, which may well be responsible for my going into law. Let us assume that we feel that, when given a choice between hitting and killing 5 pedestrians and hitting and killing one, it is preferable to kill the one. Does it then follow that you are entitled to kill somebody and divvy out his organs in order to save 5 other lives? Most people would say no. And that's because we care about how you get to an endpoint, not just where you end up. Thus, loopholes. A loophole doesn't negate the intelligence or legitimacy of a system of law, because if it did, there wouldn't be any systems of law at all. And loopholes don't just mean that the lawmaker didn't happen to think of the case and therefore was too foolish to plug it up. If the lawmaker wanted to prevent the consequence, he is perfectly capable of making a law to demand the consequence he wants. Any system of law that chooses to base itself of forbidding certain specific behaviors is going to be riddled with loopholes. Get used to it.

And guess what? Legal codes aren't necessary moral. As one of my professors pointed out, the Talmud doesn't talk about right and wrong. It never stops and ponders 'How does G-d feel about the issue', nor does it phrase its arguments in terms of 'What does G-d want us to do?' On the rare occasions that G-d does express an opinion in the Talmud, He is shouted down (Tanur Achnai). The Talmud starts with the necessary initial assumption that 1) obedience to the law is moral and/or desirable and 2) that interpretation of the law is included within the law itself. And from that point forward, it's all about the law. As a living, breathing, evolving, convoluted, contradictory, frustrating, manipulatable entity all of its own.

And that's the way it has to be for the halacha to be the unbelievably awesome thing that it is. Because when you keep referring back to feelings and morality, you aren't inside a legal process any more. And when you aren't inside the legal process, you have cheated yourself of the opportunity to be a part of the creation of G-d's will. To create truth and morality within the structure mandated for humans to be able to participate in the whole thing. That's the crazy cool thing about halacha- it is simultaneously a supremely human legal system, with humans working away about applying and interpreting and inventing and whatnot, and at the same time, the legitimate expression of G-d's will.

Why would somebody choose to go off and mull about truth when he's being offered the chance to create it? Why would you choose to mumble about the dead rigidity of the law when there's a perfectly good structure that lives it? Why would you prefer to cling to your private morality when you have the ability to make it G-d's as well?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An Actual Rant

Often, I allege that a post is going to be a rant and then it ends up being a semi-coherent philosophical argument. This is not one of those cases. This is an actual real, true rant, motivated by nothing beyond rage, frustration, and the joy of having an internet connection. This story of that internet, in fact, is the motivation for this rant.

Once upon a time, there were two roommates who decided to get internet for their dorm room. So they went to the Bezek booth at the Bar Ilan orientation fair, for it was Bezek who could provide them with a phone line that was enabled for internetness. And the Bezek people sold them internet and a phone line and a router and some other confusing things, and much money was spent and there was much rejoicing.

Then a week passed and all of the girls' friends had gotten the Bezek man to come and connect their internet, but the Bezek man did not come to these girls. And so one of the girls began to call Bezek, often several times daily, and this is the litany of the calls, as best as they can be remembered at the moment:

Call 1: Bezek tells the girl that it has never heard of her. Her ID number does not match anything on their computers and that it is impossible to look her up by name.

Call 2 (2 hours later): Bezek tells the girl that it has still never heard of her, neither by her correct ID number, nor by the one that she finds mistakenly written on one of the forms. Is she sure she does not have the order number? Considering that she was never given an order number, she is.

Call 3 (10 minutes later): Bezek tells the girl that they have still not heard of her, but now agrees to look her up by name. Upon doing so, they discover that she really does exist, but there is no order for internet. When questioned, they explain that it takes several days to process the order for a phone line, after which they can begin to process the order for internet. They do not know when the order for the phone line will be processed. Try again in a couple of days.

Call 4 (the next day): Bezek still has not gotten the order for the phone line processed, but they assure the girl that once it is, the internet can be processed quickly. There will be no need to have the Bezek man come around to the room. Are they sure that everyone will be done automatically? You bet they are.

Call 5 (a couple of days later): The girl wonders when she will receive internet. Bezek informs her that her order has just been processed and that in around a week and a half, the Bezek man will come around and adjust the line. Bezek man? asks the girl. Week and a half? asks the girl. Bezek says yes, that is when his schedule is free, and really it has nothing to do with the processes back at their end of customer service. Have a nice day!

Call 6 (a few minutes later): Bezek repeats its statement that the Bezek man will come in a week and a half, except that it decides that there is a vacancy some 5 or 6 days earlier. The only catch is that apparently the Bezek man prefers not to cramp his style by narrowing down his time of coming to less than three hours, all during a time when both the girl and her roommate have class. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, the girl asks for the earlier time slot. Class will be dealt with when it comes.

Call 7-9 (Over a few days) Girl confirms the coming of the Bezek man because there has been created in her a deep and abiding distrust of anything that Bezek tells her.

Call 10 (From the technician) Since the girl and roommate have gone to a great deal of effort to figure out how, when, and which of them will miss classes at every particular moment, they are somewhat surprised, but gratified when the technician calls offering them their choice of time slot.

Call 11 (To the internet service provider, a whole different company. Later the same day) Internet service is ordered. After a 4 hour wait, the girl may call up their technical support and access the internet.

Call 12 (Four hours later): Tech support encounters a problem with the modem, purchased from Bezek, which means that the girl should turn to Bezek tech support.

Call 13 (A few minutes later): Bezek tech support would love to help, but it seems that there is no record of internet being ordered for this number. Is the girl certain it wasn't ordered for a different number? Tech support is terribly sorry, but this is a problem that must be dealt with by customer service, who are no longer working but will be glad to help the girl tomorrow.

Call 14 (The next day): Bezek customer service does have the girl down as having internet. They would be glad to connect her to technical support, who will be able to help her connect.

Call 15 (30 minutes later, but actually just spent on hold): Bezek technical support does see that there is an order for internet, but that they don't see any modem ordered for this line. Is the girl entirely sure that she bought the modem from Bezek? Other than the word Bezek written repeatedly on the box and the fact that she purchased it from a Bezek fair, the girl has no reason to assume so. Well, technical support can't deal with the issue, so it sends her back to customer service.

Call 16 (After 20 minutes on hold): No, there is no modem on this line. Perhaps it was for another line? Did the girl inform the person from whom she bought the line that she has purchased a modem? Is the girl sure that it's a Bezek modem? After these and similar inane questions, Bezek asks the girl to come into some Bezek store somewhere and prove that the modem came from Bezek. The girl declines and launches into a very minor hissy fit. Bezek fiddles on their computers and sends the girl back to technical support, with promises that the modem thing will not interfere.

Call 17 (Tech support, 20 minutes later): Internet is successfully installed.

And the twist end of the story is that a mere 6 hours later, when the girl was in the midst of her rejoicing at the existingness of her internet, she goes to class to discover that her law faculty has managed to lose her first, four-page long, much labored-over paper. Perhaps the girl forgot to hand it in? She could call the secretary's office, or possibly the TA...

And so another saga begins...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Evolution Debate

I had an interesting argument about evolution with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. Principally interesting because I think that she was shocked by the relatively left-wingedness of my position. I think that because I wear skirts and, until recently, socks, she is under the impression that I am far more Beis Yaakov than I am. But I have always been more of an intellectual rebel than a behavioral one.

Anyhoo, not the point of this post. The point is that in the middle of the discussion, I got set off on one of my favorite rants, so set off, in fact, that I am still fuming enough to be motivated to actually post several days later. It goes like this:

I do not care if you do not believe in evolution. I do not care if you hold that it's a crime to believe in it. I do not even, intellectually speaking, care if you think that I am evil for believing in it. But please, please do not come to me with three hand-picked, heavily ellipsed scientists, your layman's understanding of advanced scientific theories and some moth-ridden arguments that you heard at a kiruv shabbaton and try to tell me that your opposition to evolution is scientifically based.

I mean, honestly. If I hear the phrase 'evolution is only a theory' one more time, I think I am going to break something. Something expensive. And to save myself time in the comments, yes, I know that evolution is only a theory. Not unlike gravity. And yet I don't go throwing myself off of buildings because I don't buy into the gravity myth. True, evolution has never been proven. It is almost impossible to prove it absolutely, especially when one of the opposite arguments is that an Omnipotent and Omniscient Being has purposely planted misleading evidence that would lead us to believe in evolution. But it has repeatedly failed to be mislead and produced more and more evidence that supports the conclusion that it is true.

Look, I'm not claiming to be an expert scientist and I can hardly argue against more knowledgable people who do not believe that evolution is scientifically supported. But nor is it possible to deny, with intellectual honesty, the fact that an overwhelming of expert scientists do believe that it is accurate. And even if you can find one or two who do doubt the theory- for whatever ideological or scientific reasons of their own- please do not attempt to deny the fact that they are the majority.

Which is not to say that you have to believe in evolution. If you believe that the Bible account is literally true, then by all means, you have every right to go with far less likely or provable, but nonetheless logical explanations, which ever ones you find. If, on the other hand, you believe that evolution is inherently illogical and unscientific, maybe, just maybe, you should ask yourself what factors are motivating that opinion and why, exactly, a whole bunch of perfectly intelligent scientists haven't seemed to catch on?

By the same token, I think that it would be intellectually dishonest for me to pretend that my evolution-influenced reading of B'reishit is the most obvious p'shat that would leap to the eye, or that my willingness to read the Torah as metaphorical or inexact is necessarily most in keeping with the most conservative (small c) religious opinions. I, personally, am fond of the whole Big Bang/Evolution picture of creation not only for scientific reasons, but also because it seems to me to paint a more cogent and more awesome God than pure ex nihilo understandings. But that's my personal opinion, and I attempt, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, to be aware of all of the factors that motivate that decision and not to pretend that the decisions I make are a synthesis of all possible factors rather than a mediation between them.

Of course, true intellectual honesty means that I am also aware of the fact that I am probably not really completely intellectually honest even with myself, but at that point, we start to get into eddying circles of self-knowledge, and then I get a head-ache. So we shall stop here.