Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Free Will

[Y]ou should prevent your beliefs about how things are from being contaminated by how you wish they were. --Paul Graham
I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really a hallucination. --Alan Watts

I've been thinking a lot about the notion of free will lately, which may have started in an email discussion I had with Orthoprax. Then, via Atheist Ethicist, I came across Denying Big God and the Little God: The Next Step for Atheists? It makes the following difficult point:

In atheist circles it's conventional wisdom to doubt god's existence on empirical grounds: there's no good evidence that such a being exists, so we don't waste time believing in it. But there'’s an equally suspect, supernatural entity that often lurks at the heart of commonsense ideas about human nature: the freely willing self.

We have, it is widely believed, the power to think, choose, and act in some crucial respect independently of those causal factors that create us as persons, and that surround us each moment of our lives. Unlike anything else in nature, human beings have a special contra-causal freedom to cause things to happen without themselves being fully caused in turn.

Sound familiar? It should, for such causally privileged freedom is a characteristic of god -- the uncaused causer, the prime mover, who acts without himself being at the effect of anything. The assumption of free will, so widespread in our culture, in effect sets us up as supernatural little gods, and it'’s this assumption that a thorough-going naturalism upsets. We should doubt the little god of free will on the very same grounds that atheists doubt the big god of traditional religions: there's no evidence for it.

Just as science has radically altered our view of cosmic reality, replacing the static earth-centered heavens with the Big Bang, and supernatural human origins with Darwinian evolution, so too it replaces the soul with the fully physical person, shaped in its entirety by the complex interaction of genetics and environment. Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that's independent of neural processes. There's nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there's nothing supernatural outside it.

I've resisted this idea for a long time for two reasons: (1) it seems intuitively that we have free will and (2) I found it disturbing to consider that I in fact don't have it. But intuition is often wrong, particularly when considering things which are at different scales from the normal human environment, whether we're considering the long time scale of evolution, the vast distance of space, or the counterintuitive workings of sub-atomic particles. And, as I'm always chiding theists who believe in God because of the perceived negative consequences of disbelief (ahem), I believe we must have the courage to face the truth however difficult it may be or we're just wasting our time here.

Evidence Against Free Will

At this time, though, I must for now accept that we have no free will as it's commonly understood. The only evidence for it is our unreliable intuition, and there is considerable evidence against it once you assume that the mind arises solely out of the brain. First, the brain is physical and as such, according to all the physics we now know, is either mechanistic (unlikely) or probabilistic. Neither choice allows for the kind of "small god" that free will implies. Second, there have been some scientific experiments which suggest that we come to believe we are choosing consciously after we've already reached a decision. In a famous experiment by Benjamin Libet, it was shown that the unconscious part of the brain begins to show activity that a decision was made to perform an action before the person is aware of a desire to perform the action. This seems to rule out conscious free will. (Libet allows for a reduced version of free will by saying that the consciousness retains veto power up until shortly before the action is taken. However, I don't find that line of argument very convincing.) In another experiment, Alvaro Pascual-Leone discovered that we can affect which hand a person chooses "randomly" by stimulating different hemispheres of the brain with a magnetic field. Nevertheless, the people believed they were freely choosing.

Morality Without Free Will

Much as theists like to argue that there can be no morality without God, people first react to the absence of free will with a similar argument: "If we are not free to choose, how can we be held responsible for our actions?" Alonzo Fyfe (the Atheist Ethicist) deals with this question in his entry, Morality and Free Will. As I mostly agree with him, I'll refer you there.

Personhood Without Free Will

The bigger concern for me is our very personhood. Can it be that at this moment I literally have no choice but to type these words? That if I decide to stop, I didn't really "decide" to stop? If I'm just a machine and not a "small god," why bother living? This really troubled me.

But then I realized that I was still assuming too many facts not in evidence. What is this "I" we speak of? Even without the sticky question of free will, the "I" in an atheistic (or Buddhist, I guess) universe is pretty much an illusion. I was introduced to this idea years ago, when I was still a wavering theist, by the Buddhist and Eastern Philosophy scholar Alan Watts's book The Book (On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are). He writes:
We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms- Most of us have the sensation that "I myself" is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body--a center which "confronts an "external" world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. "I came into this world." "You must face reality." "The conquest of nature."

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.

For Watts and the Buddhists, the lack of self is beautiful. Since there is no boundary between me and the universe, I am the universe. What I think of as myself is simply the universe manifesting itself through me:

Underneath the superficial self, which pays attention to this and that, there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self -- if you become aware of it -- the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is. You are a function of this total galaxy, bounded by the Milky Way, and this galaxy is a function of all other galaxies. You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes. You look and look, and one day you are going to wake up and say, "Why, that's me!" And in knowing that, you know that you never die. You are the eternal thing that comes and goes that appears -- now as John Jones, now as Mary Smith, now as Betty Brown -- and so it goes, forever and ever and ever.

Those of us who had been believing in ourselves as little gods will have to do some mourning for our lost sense of self, but then we'll realize that we haven't lost anything since we never had it to begin with. Nothing changes but our perspective. As Alonzo writes in the comments of his post, "What will [free will] give you that you would not otherwise have? If I want a chocolate cake, I can still go get a chocolate cake."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Left Behind... The Board Game!

Imagine having friends and loved ones all around you suddenly disappear in the blink of an eye. Paralyzed with fear in a state of mass confusion, you struggle desparately to make sense of what's just happened. Then you've been Left Behind! This exciting board game has two parts. The first is prior to the Rapture and the second is after the Rapture. It is the classic contest between good and evil. Answer questions correctly or even deceive other players with false confessions and earn tokens. These tokens are of great value in the second part of the game (which starts without warning). This is when Carpathia enters the game and causes individual players to band together forming the Tribulation Force. From this moment on, the goal is to work together to defeat Carpathia or face elimination. This unique game can give players a heightened awareness of the "end times." For ages 10 to adult. For 2-6 players. --Left Behind Board Game

From Left Behind Games.

The mission of Left Behind Games is to become the worldÂ’s leading independent developer and publisher of quality interactive entertainment products that perpetuate family values and appeal to mainstream and Christian audiences, while remaining committed to increasing shareholder value and pursuing the highest standards of integrity and professionalism in all business affairs. --Left Behind Games, Our Mission

Also selling incredibly disturbing graphic novels.

If anyone's unfamiliar with the juggernaut that is Left Behind, here is wikipedia's summary:
Based on fundamentalist interpretation of prophecies in the Biblical books of Revelation, Isaiah and Ezekiel, Left Behind tells the story of the end times, in which many have vanished, leaving the world shattered and chaotic. As peopleSchnabele for answers, aRumaniann namedNicoleejetycarpeta, who, in his political rise to the head of the United Nations, has promised to restore peace and stability to all nations. What most of the world doesn't realize is that Carpathia is actually the Antichrist. Coming to grips with the truth and becoming born-again Christians, Rayford Steele, his daughter, Chloe, their pastor Bruce Barnes, and young journalist Buck begin their quest as the Tribulation Force to help save the lost and prepare for the coming tribulation, in which God will rain down judgement on the world.

If that sounds far out to you, consider that the Left Behind series has sold fantastically well. And, according to the authors at least, "the pre-millennialist theology found in the Left Behind series is the prominent view among evangelicals Christians, including their leading seminaries such Talbot Seminary, Trinity Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary." (Source.)

Michelle Goldberg, of Salon, sees something sinister in the Left Behind series: "It's bizarre that more attention hasn't been paid to the series' open hostility to the Jewish religion, if not the Jewish people... It's an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn't share their beliefs -- especially liberals and Jews."

Oh, and don't miss the movies with Kirk Cameron!

(via metafilter.)

Church Ceremony Celebrates Gay Pairs

Church Ceremony Celebrates Gay Pairs

While I often criticize religious groups for opposing gay rights, it's nice to remember that there are those among the religious who value love more than hate and tolerance more than ignorance.

In a gesture of love that has become in Virginia, as elsewhere, a gesture of political protest, about 60 gay and heterosexual couples, some young and others who've been together 25 years or more, reaffirmed their vows of commitment yesterday in a ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.

For such clergymen as Rev. Richard Nugent, gay rights is a religious issue.

To a large extent, the ceremony in the rectangular, concrete-and-glass church was also about demonstrating a religious ethic that is counter to the more conservative one preached from many pulpits.

"We've been saying for years that hate is not a family value," said Ullius, 58, who reaffirmed her vows to her partner of 25 years, Buckner, 54. "Discrimination is not a family value, and inequality is not a family value."

Ceremonies like these are happening all over the country. The nation may not recognize gay marriage, but gay and lesbian couples are having marriage ceremonies anyway. They wear rings, they refer to husbands or wives, and they join their lives together.

For others who took part, the ceremony was only secondarily a political statement; primarily, it was a rare opportunity to declare their love in a public way and to feel accepted by a community.

"If I had a wedding," said Joyner, 55, of Alexandria, "I don't know how many of my family members would show up."

She is generally shy, she said, and not prone to activism. But when the time came yesterday, she marched outside, joined hands with her partner of five years, Lovelace, and in the cool afternoon said, "I will," in front of a congregation that clapped for them.

In fifty years, our children and grandchildren will look upon those opposing gay marriage as those of our generation now look back upon those who opposed interracial marriage. Will you be able to tell them you were on the side of justice? Or will you stand ashamed and repentent before them?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Partner's Death Ends Happy Life on Ranch

People who oppose gay marriage and gay civil unions need to think about the pain that they're causing. The gay marriage battle isn't about whether there will be gay couples; it's about whether gay couples that already exist and will exist in the future deserve equal protection under the law.

Partner's Death Ends Happy Life on Ranch

"Listen," the character Twist [in Brokeback Mountain] says to del Mar as part of a dream that goes unrealized. "I'm thinking, tell you what, if you and me had a little ranch together -- little cow and calf operation, your horses -- it'd be some sweet life."

That pretty much describes the life Beaumont had. He settled down with Earl Meadows and tended 50 head of cattle for a quarter-century on an Oklahoma ranch. "I was raised to be independent. I didn't really care what other people thought," Beaumont said.

In 1977, Beaumont was divorced and raising three sons after a dozen years in the Air Force when Meadows walked up to him near the Arkansas River.

"It was a pretty day -- January 15th, 65 degrees," Beaumont said. "He came up, we got to talkin' till 2 in the morning. I don't even remember what we said." But "I knew it was something special."

Beaumont moved to be with Meadows in his partner's hometown of Bristow, Okla., a place of 4,300 people. Together, they bought a ranch and raised Beaumont's three sons. The mortgage and most of the couple's possessions were put in Meadows' name.

During the day, Meadows worked as a comptroller for Black & Decker. He'd drop the boys at school on his way to work. At home, Beaumont took care of the ranch, feeding and tagging cattle, cooking and cleaning, and once built a barn.

"As far as I was concerned, I had two dads," said one of Beaumont's sons, now 33, who requested anonymity. He was 2 years old when Meadows joined the family.

"Dad helped with schoolwork and all the stuff around the house, taught me to ride horses and milk cows. Earl used to take me to the company picnics and Christmas parties. He bought me my first car."

Most of their friends, Beaumont said, were straight couples, women who worked at Black & Decker, "teachers and doctors and lawyers," and childhood friends of Meadows who often came to dinner at the ranch.

"People treated them fine," said Eunice Lawson, who runs a grocery store in Bristow.

But in 1999, Meadows had a stroke and Beaumont took care of him for a year until he died at age 56.

That's where the fantasy of a life together on the range collides with reality. After a quarter-century on the ranch he shared with his partner, Beaumont lost it all on a legal technicality in a state that doesn't recognize domestic partnerships.

Meadows' will, which left everything to Beaumont, was fought in court by a cousin of the deceased and was declared invalid by the Oklahoma Court of Appeals in 2003 because it was short one witness signature.

A judge ruled the rancher had to put the property, which was appraised at $100,000, on the market. The animals were sold. Beaumont had to move.

Because Meadows had no biological children or surviving parents, his estate was divided up among his heirs. When the ranch sells, the proceeds are to be divided among dozens of Meadows' cousins.

"They took the estate away from me," said Beaumont, who said he put about $200,000 of his own money into the ranch. "Everything that had Earl's name on it, they took. They took it all and didn't bat an eye."

Every state has common-law marriage rules that protect heterosexual couples. If someone dies without a will, or with a faulty one, his or her live-in partner is treated as the rightful inheritor.

But only seven states currently give gay couples protections -- such as inheritance rights and health benefits -- through marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships. What's more, Oklahoma last year amended its state constitution to ensure that neither marriage nor any similar arrangement is extended to same-sex couples.

Today, there are roughly 90,000 gay couples living in small-town America, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and more than 5,700 in Oklahoma.

(via metafilter)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Did Someone E-mail Me Recently for an Article?

I seem to remember a request for an article I had, but I must have deleted the email. Please send it again. Thanks.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a hero.

It's worth remembering on this day that King's dream is incomplete. We've come a long way, but there's still a ways to go. In an article last year, Mara Voukydis asked, WWMLKD: What Would Martin Luther King Do?

Decades ago, King spoke of millions of Americans "smoldering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." This still rings true in 2005. In the past four years, some gains made in the nineties have been lost. In 2000, the Black unemployment rate dipped to an all-time low of 7%. Now more than one out of ten Black Americans is unemployed, as compared to roughly one out of twenty whites. The familiar call for personal responsibility loses its momentum when a person tries desperately and is unable to find work.

Income levels and poverty rates also worsened since 2000. The number of families in poverty fell rapidly during the nineties for all groups, but especially fast for Latinos and Blacks. Much of that progress has been lost in the past four years. As for earnings, the average Black income was 65% of white income in the year 2000, but 62% of white income in 2003. The first Bush administration blocked Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Some have said that it's enough that we have outlawed racial discrimination, that the ongoing problems of African Americans are their own fault, and that affirmative action (for example) is unfair discrimination which King would have opposed. However, King argued that it's not enough to end today's prejudicial treatment. We must make up for the wrongs of the past:

Whenever this issue [compensatory treatment] is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the second would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.

A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis. (Wikipedia .)

Let us also take from King's example the tremendous potential of religion. (This one's for you, Sadie Lou.) I spend most of my time criticizing it here in a time and place where religious fundamentalists seem driven by more by hatred than by love, but King's religion should be an inspiration to all religious people, and his life an inspiration to everybody, religious or not. Instead of fighting against gay rights, instead of fighting the use of condoms in Africa, instead of wailing about the so-called "War on Christmas," King fought for love and freedom:

We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.

The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff.

America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!
--from The Negro and the Constitution

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Who Wrote the Bible?

You know how sometimes at the end of a movie there is a twist that suddenly changes your understanding of everything that happened before? Events which you previously thought you understood take on a whole new meaning. Think about the climax of The Sixth Sense, for example.

I had that experience when I realized who Ezra HaSofer ("the scribe") probably was. We were taught that he was called "the scribe" because, you know, he was a scribe. He copied Torahs; he even made a couple of small corrections, according to some of the sages.

What an understatement! He wasn't Ezra HaSofer; he was Ezra HaSOFER! He didn't correct a few errors; he basically compiled/wrote (redacted) what we now call the Torah!

In hindsight, everything makes sense. There were so many clues.

The Clues

First of all, a plain reading of Nechemiya (Nehemia) 8 implies that Ezra revealed a Torah which was at least partially new to the people:

1 all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which HaShem had commanded to Israel.
2 And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law...
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people--for he was above all the people--and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
6 And Ezra blessed HaShem, the great G-d. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen', with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before HaShem with their faces to the ground...
8 And they read in the book, in the Law of G-d, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: 'This day is holy unto HaShem your G-d; mourn not, nor weep.' For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law...
12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
13 And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers' houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law.
14 And they found written in the Law, how that HaShem had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month;
15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.'
16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of G-d, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim.
17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the Law of G-d. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the ordinance. (JPS)

They had never celebrated Sukkot (The Feast of Booths) in that country! ("Since the days of Joshua.") Apologists will tell you that the people had simply forgotten the Torah and Ezra was bringing it back to them. However, Richard Friedman points out that in Leviticus 23, the laws for Sukkot seem to be added on to the list of holidays. The list goes from verses 4-37 and ends, "These are the holidays of Hashem." Then, two verses later, it suddenly starts listing the laws of Sukkot. This makes sense in hindsight. Combined with evidence (Neh 8:17, above) that Sukkot wasn't celebrated until Ezra showed up with the Torah, it seems reasonable that Ezra added those verses to an earlier text when he redacted the Torah.

(Friedman brings many more arguments in support of Ezra being the redactor. For example, he points out that this is the first time in all of Tanakh that a finished copy of the Five Books appears. See Who Wrote the Bible for more.)

Second, there is evidence within the Torah that (at least) parts of it were written long after Moses' time:

So Moses the servant of HaShem died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of HaShem. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. (Deuteronomy 6:34)

And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)

These were the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before there was any king reigning over the descendants of Yisrael. (Gen. 36:31)

And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. (Genesis 14:14)

As this article points out, "no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day" doesn't make sense if it was written during Moses' time; "And there hath not arisen a prophet since" has the same problem; "before there was any king reigning over the descendants of Yisrael" makes no sense before King Saul's reign; and "Dan" wasn't named "Dan" until long after Moses' death (Judges 18:29.)

The Jewish Tradition

Although obviously the Jewish tradition has Ezra making some minor edits at the most, there are some remnants of Ezra's real importance to the Torah. The Talmud, for example, compares him favorably with Moses himself.

In the Talmud, it says:

It has been taught: R. Jose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel. Of Moses it is written, And Moses went up unto God, and of Ezra it is written, He, Ezra, went up from Babylon. As the going up of the former refers to the [receiving of the] Law, so does the going up of the latter. Concerning Moses, it is stated: And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments; and concerning Ezra, it is stated: For Ezra had prepared his heart to expound the law of the Lord [his God] to do it and to teach Israel statutes and judgments. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written: And the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character and interpreted into the Aramaic [tongue]. And again it is written, And they could not read the writing nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Further, it is written: And he shall write the copy [mishneh] of this law, — in writing which was destined to be changed. --Sanhedrin (21b - 22a)

Other Sources of Evidence

There is also evidence from outside of the mainstream Jewish tradition that people believed Ezra wrote or redacted the Torah as early as the 1st century CE. Ezra 4 (otherwise known as 2 Esdras, which is "Ezra" in Latin) was written in the 1st or 2nd century. (Ezra 1 & 2 are Ezra and Nehemia.) Although it's not in the Jewish Tanakh or accepted by most Christians as scriptural, "the Ethiopian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox consider it canonical." (Wikipedia.)

Ezra 4 is a truly fascinating book. According to it, the original Torah was burned up in the fire that destroyed the first Temple. God appears in a bush and re-teaches the Torah to Ezra:

1: And it came to pass upon the third day, I sat under an oak, and, behold, there came a voice out of a bush over against me, and said, Esdras, Esdras.
2: And I said, Here am I, Lord And I stood up upon my feet.
3: Then said he unto me, In the bush I did manifestly reveal myself unto Moses, and talked with him, when my people served in Egypt...
19: Then answered I before thee, and said,
20: Behold, Lord, I will go, as thou hast commanded me, and reprove the people which are present: but they that shall be born afterward, who shall admonish them? thus the world is set in darkness, and they that dwell therein are without light.
21: For thy law is burnt, therefore no man knoweth the things that are done of thee, or the work that shall begin.
22: But if I have found grace before thee, send the Holy Ghost into me, and I shall write all that hath been done in the world since the beginning, which were written in thy law, that men may find thy path, and that they which will live in the latter days may live.
23: And he answered me, saying, Go thy way, gather the people together, and say unto them, that they seek thee not for forty days.
24: But look thou prepare thee many box trees, and take with thee Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ecanus, and Asiel, these five which are ready to write swiftly;
25: And come hither, and I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out, till the things be performed which thou shalt begin to write.
26: And when thou hast done, some things shalt thou publish, and some things shalt thou shew secretly to the wise: to morrow this hour shalt thou begin to write.
27: Then went I forth, as he commanded, and gathered all the people together, and said,
28: Hear these words, O Israel.
29: Our fathers at the beginning were strangers in Egypt, from whence they were delivered:
30: And received the law of life, which they kept not, which ye also have transgressed after them.
31: Then was the land, even the land of Sion, parted among you by lot: but your fathers, and ye yourselves, have done unrighteousness, and have not kept the ways which the Highest commanded you.
32: And forasmuch as he is a righteous judge, he took from you in time the thing that he had given you.
33: And now are ye here, and your brethren among you.
34: Therefore if so be that ye will subdue your own understanding, and reform your hearts, ye shall be kept alive and after death ye shall obtain mercy.
35: For after death shall the judgment come, when we shall live again: and then shall the names of the righteous be manifest, and the works of the ungodly shall be declared.
36: Let no man therefore come unto me now, nor seek after me these forty days.
37: So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we went into the field, and remained there.
38: And the next day, behold, a voice called me, saying, Esdras, open thy mouth, and drink that I give thee to drink.
39: Then opened I my mouth, and, behold, he reached me a full cup, which was full as it were with water, but the colour of it was like fire.
40: And I took it, and drank: and when I had drunk of it, my heart uttered understanding, and wisdom grew in my breast, for my spirit strengthened my memory:
41: And my mouth was opened, and shut no more.
42: The Highest gave understanding unto the five men, and they wrote the wonderful visions of the night that were told, which they knew not: and they sat forty days, and they wrote in the day, and at night they ate bread.
43: As for me. I spake in the day, and I held not my tongue by night.
44: In forty days they wrote two hundred and four books.

45: And it came to pass, when the forty days were filled, that the Highest spake, saying, The first that thou hast written publish openly, that the worthy and unworthy may read it:
46: But keep the seventy last, that thou mayest deliver them only to such as be wise among the people:
47: For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the stream of knowledge.
48: And I did so.

Now obviously I don't expect my Orthodox Jewish or fundamentalist Christian readers to just take Ezra 4's word for it. But it is an indication of an ancient tradition that Ezra (re-)wrote of the Torah.


None of this evidence is conclusive. It's impossible to say for sure whether Ezra was indeed the redactor, or whether there even was a single redactor. The Documentary Hypothesis argues that there were at least four distinct authors of the Five Books (J, E, P, and D) and that there was a fifth person who was the redactor.

To summarize, we know (1)that parts of the Torah seem to have been written long after Moses' death (2) that Ezra at least re-introduced the people to the Torah, including teaching them about Sukkot for apparently the first time; (3) that Ezra is known as "the scribe" and is compared favorably to Moses (!) by the Talmud; (4) that even in the mainstream Jewish tradition there is acceptance that Ezra at least made minor edits to the Torah; and (5) that there is an entire book from 2,000 years ago (albeit a few hundred years after Ezra's time) that claims Ezra wrote the current version of the Torah. It's enough for me to conclude that it is probable that Ezra was the redactor.

Nehemia 8
Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Friedman
4 Ezra or 2 Edras
Straight Dope Staff Report: Who wrote the Bible? (Part 2)
Torah Redactor, wikipedia.
The Multiple Authorship of the Books Attributed to Moses, William Harwood, Ph. D.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Is a Belief in God Beneficial? Or, What's an Atheist to Do?

[T]here is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately. -- psychologist Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 111.)
Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right. -- Henry Ford

Setting aside the question of whether God exists, is it beneficial to believe that he does? If any of the gods of the major monotheistic religions is true, it's clear that believing in Him is beneficial (assuming that we've picked the right one!) However, what if us atheists are right? Could it still be that you're better off believing wrongly than disbelieving correctly?

Regardless of whether theists are correct or not, there is some evidence that being religious is beneficial in a number of ways.

1) Religious attendance is correlated with longevity. A search on Google Scholar reveals a wealth of studies showing that people who attend religious services can expect to live five to seven years longer!

2) Religious belief has been associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms. (Religious belief, depression, and ambulation status in elderly women with broken hips.)

3) Religious beliefs may help with addiction.
The most well-known treatment for addiction are the 12 step programs related to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is often religious, but sometimes not. (Many atheists in recovery manage to accept "God as we understood him" without becoming theists.)

4) Religious attendance is correlated with lower blood pressure. (Frequency of church attendance and blood pressure elevation.)

So What's an Atheist to Do?

It certainly seems like there are benefits to believing. But I can't just flip a switch and believe in God even if I decide believing is in my best interest. What are my other options?

Take Advantage of Modern Psychology

In psychologist Martin Seligman's book Authentic Happiness, he refers to a study by one of his students which shows that "the more fundamentalist the religion, the more optimistic are its adherents. Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are markedly more optimistic than Reform Jews and Unitarians, who are more depressive on average. Probing more deeply, she separated the amount of hope found in the sermons, liturgy, and stories from other factors like social support. She found that the increase in optimism which increasing religiousness brings is entirely accounted for by greater hope." (60.)

There are of course secular sources of hope we may turn to, such as the promise of scientific, political, and humanistic progress. Perhaps more importantly, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic, possibly without even decreasing our realism. David Burns, in Feeling Good : The New Mood Therapy, offers a number of scientifically proven techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to fight "anxiety, guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem, and other 'black holes' of depression." (Similarly CBT has been shown to be among the most effective treatments for alcohol dependence -- Cognitive-Behavioral Coping Skills Therapy for Alcohol Dependence.) Although most psychological research has been focused on treating problems like alcoholism and depression rather than on improving "normal" people's lives, Seligman's Positive Psychology Center is trying to change that by "seek[ing] to understand and build the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive."

Find a Community

""You want to go where everybody knows your name." -- Cheers

Losing the tight-knit community was the hardest part of leaving Orthodox for me. I wasn't used to needing to proactively seek friends and activities; they always just sort of fell into my lap when I was Orthodox. Finding a secular community like a small town, a club, a sports team, a meditation group, or just a great group of friends and family might provide an adequate substitute. Still, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to recapture the sense of belongingness I felt as an Orthodox Jewish kid. Obviously, that sense of belonging sharply diminished as my beliefs changed and I fit in less and less, and I wasn't willing to pay the required price of silence and implied agreement with points of view I strongly disagree with.

Bowling Alone makes the claim that the lack of community is a recent American problem: "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." Others have suggested that Americans need more third places, "the place[s] where citizens of a community or neighborhood meet to develop friendships, discuss issues, and interact with others," like the cafes, taverns, and corner stores of the old days. Somehow, Starbucks and 7-11 don't fill their forefathers' shoes.

Find or Create Meaning

Most religions provide a ready-made meaning to life, but those of us without religion can have meaning, too. Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning is perhaps the most-well known book about finding meaning, but there are other sources as well. Or, we can turn to philosophers like Camus, who said, "If, after all, men cannot always make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one." He also said, "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."

Be "Spiritual But Not Religious"

Spiritual traditions contain great wisdom which doesn't dissipate if you read "spiritual" metaphorically. Many Western atheists find that Buddhism translates well to their worldviews. I blogged about my own relationship with Buddhism here. One also can't help but learn great things from the dominant religions of the Western world by osmosis if not by intention. In fact, one of my favorite books is Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates, who is a Christian and a Yoga instructor.

Understand "God" Metaphorically

Finally, there seem to have been a number of great men (and presumably, women) who have found deep meaning in a God that doesn't seem much different from the Universe itself, or from "nothingness," "Nature," "emptiness," "love," or some other abstraction. Einstein, for example, said "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." The ex-communicated Jew Spinoza wrote, "We are part of Nature as a whole whose order we follow." I don't know if he was a great man, but Gorbechev said, "I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals." Indeed, some atheist members of AA* go one further and interpret "GOD" as "Group of Drunks," i.e. the AA community itself.

I myself have some sense of this metaphorical God. Sometimes I'm running in the woods at twilight and everything just feels perfect, and I think, "There it is." Sometimes I meditate, or do yoga, or just relax, and there comes a stillness that is what I think the Buddhists are talking about when they talk about spirit or the great nothingness or God.

* The Alcoholics Anonymous movement is a great ongoing exploration of the boundaries between believing, trying to believe, and creatively interpreting words and concepts to mean what you already believe. For a fascinating if incredibly long and dense book that deals in part with these themes, I highly recommend one of my favorite books, Infinite Jest.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Dover Decision II - ID Proponents "Distort and Misrepresent Scientific Knowledge"

For those readers who don't want to read the entire decision, and were not convinced by the conclusion, I beg you to read this excerpt, which addresses clearly the issue of whether "Intelligent Design" is science:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. (64)


Plaintiffs’ science experts, Drs. Miller and Padian, clearly explained how ID proponents generally and Pandas specifically, distort and misrepresent scientific knowledge in making their anti-evolution argument. In analyzing such distortion, we turn again to Pandas, the book to which students are expressly referred in the disclaimer. Defendants hold out Pandas as representative of ID and Plaintiffs’ experts agree in that regard. (16:83 (Padian); 1:107-08 (Miller)). A series of arguments against evolutionary theory found in Pandas involve paleontology, which studies the life of the past and the fossil record. Plaintiffs’ expert Professor Padian was the only testifying expert witness with any expertise in paleontology.15 His testimony therefore remains unrebutted. Dr. Padian’s demonstrative slides, prepared on the basis of peer-reviewing scientific literature, illustrate how Pandas systematically distorts and misrepresents established, important evolutionary principles.

We will provide several representative examples of this distortion. First, Pandas misrepresents the “dominant form of understanding relationships” between organisms, namely, the tree of life, represented by classification determined via the method of cladistics. (16:87-97 (Padian); P-855.6-855.19). Second, Pandas misrepresents “homology,” the “central concept of comparative biology,” that allowed scientists to evaluate comparable parts among organisms for classification purposes for hundreds of years. (17:27-40 (Padian); P-855.83-855.102). Third, Pandas fails to address the well-established biological concept of exaptation, which involves a structure changing function, such as fish fins evolving fingers and bones to become legs for weight-bearing land animals. (16:146-48 (Padian)). Dr. Padian testified that ID proponents fail to address exaptation because they deny that organisms change function, which is a view necessary to support abruptappearance. Id. Finally, Dr. Padian’s unrebutted testimony demonstrates that Pandas distorts and misrepresents evidence in the fossil record about pre- Cambrian-era fossils, the evolution of fish to amphibians, the evolution of small carnivorous dinosaurs into birds, the evolution of the mammalian middle ear, and the evolution of whales from land animals. (16:107-17, 16:117-31, 16:131-45, 17:6-9, 17:17-27 (Padian); P-855.25-855.33, P-855.34-855.45, P-855.46-855.55, P-855.56-866.63, P-855.64-855.82).

In addition to Dr. Padian, Dr. Miller also testified that Pandas presents discredited science. Dr. Miller testified that Pandas’ treatment of biochemical similarities between organisms is “inaccurate and downright false” and explained how Pandas misrepresents basic molecular biology concepts to advance design theory through a series of demonstrative slides. (1:112 (Miller)). Consider, for example, that he testified as to how Pandas misinforms readers on the standard evolutionary relationships between different types of animals, a distortion which Professor Behe, a “critical reviewer” of Pandas who wrote a section within the book, affirmed. (1:113-17 (Miller); P-854.9-854.16; 23:35-36 (Behe)).16 In addition, Dr. Miller refuted Pandas’ claim that evolution cannot account for new genetic information and pointed to more than three dozen peer-reviewed scientific publications showing the origin of new genetic information by evolutionary processes. (1:133-36 (Miller); P-245). In summary, Dr. Miller testified that Pandas misrepresents molecular biology and genetic principles, as well as the current state of scientific knowledge in those areas in order to teach readers that common descent and natural selection are not scientifically sound. (1:139-42 (Miller)).

Accordingly, the one textbook to which the Dover ID Policy directs students contains outdated concepts and badly flawed science, as recognized by even the defense experts in this case.

A final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant is the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory...

On cross-examination, Professor Behe admitted that: “There are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred.” (22:22-23 (Behe)). Additionally, Professor Behe conceded that there are no peer-reviewed papers supporting his claims that complex molecular systems, like the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade, and the immune system, were intelligently designed. (21:61-62 (complex molecular systems), 23:4-5 (immune system), and 22:124-25 (blood-clotting cascade) (Behe)). In that regard, there are no peer-reviewed articles supporting Professor Behe’s argument that certain complex molecular structures are “irreducibly complex.”17 (21:62, 22:124-25 (Behe)). In addition to failing to produce papers in peer-reviewed journals, ID also features no scientific research or testing. (28:114-15 (Fuller); 18:22-23, 105-06 (Behe)). After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science.
(Pages 85-89. Emphasis added.)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Dover Decision on Intelligent Design

Those of you who haven't read the Dover decision (.pdf) should do so. It is a landmark ruling. Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and a Lutheran, thoroughly skewered the Dover school board for their unconstitutional actions.

Here is his conclusion:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon* tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court.

Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs' rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants' actions.

Defendants' actions in violation of Plaintiffs' civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs' attorneys' services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

* The purpose of the Lemon test is to determine when a law has the effect of establishing religion. The test has served as the foundation for many of the Court's post-1971 establishment clause rulings. As articulated by Chief Justice Burger, the test has three parts:

"First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion." (source)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

More Evidence for Evolution: Endogenous Retroviruses

Endogenous retroviruses provide yet another example of molecular sequence evidence for universal common descent. Endogenous retroviruses are molecular remnants of a past parasitic viral infection. Occasionally, copies of a retrovirus genome are found in its host's genome, and these retroviral gene copies are called endogenous retroviral sequences. Retroviruses (like the AIDS virus or HTLV1, which causes a form of leukemia) make a DNA copy of their own viral genome and insert it into their host's genome. If this happens to a germ line cell (i.e. the sperm or egg cells) the retroviral DNA will be inherited by descendants of the host. Again, this process is rare and fairly random, so finding retrogenes in identical chromosomal positions of two different species indicates common ancestry.


In humans, endogenous retroviruses occupy about 1% of the genome, in total constituting ~30,000 different retroviruses embedded in each person's genomic DNA (Sverdlov 2000). There are at least seven different known instances of common retrogene insertions between chimps and humans, and this number is sure to grow as both these organism's genomes are sequenced (Bonner et al. 1982; Dangel et al. 1995; Svensson et al. 1995; Kjellman et al. 1999; Lebedev et al. 2000; Sverdlov 2000). Figure 4.4.1 shows a phylogenetic tree of several primates, including humans, from a recent study which identified numerous shared endogenous retroviruses in the genomes of these primates (Lebedev et al. 2000). The arrows designate the relative insertion times of the viral DNA into the host genome. All branches after the insertion point (to the right) carry that retroviral DNA - a reflection of the fact that once a retrovirus has inserted into the germ-line DNA of a given organism, it will be inherited by all descendents of that organism.

The Felidae (i.e. cats) provide another example. The standard phylogenetic tree has small cats diverging later than large cats. The small cats (e.g. the jungle cat, European wildcat, African wildcat, blackfooted cat, and domestic cat) share a specific retroviral gene insertion. In contrast, all other carnivores which have been tested lack this retrogene (Futuyma 1998, pp. 293-294; Todaro et al. 1975).

Potential Falsification:

It would make no sense, macroevolutionarily, if certain other mammals (e.g. dogs, cows, platypi, etc.), had these same retrogenes in the exact same chromosomal locations. For instance, it would be incredibly unlikely for dogs to also carry the three HERV-K insertions that are unique to humans, as shown in the upper right of Figure 4.4.1, since none of the other primates have these retroviral sequences. -- 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: Part 4

So there you have it. One more excellent source of evidence for evolution. Well, either that or an Intelligent Designer who's trying to trick us into believing in evolution.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Why "Intelligent Design" is Not Science

(An expansion of a comment I made on Cross-Currents, although I have no idea if they will publish it.)

Evolution is a scientific theory because it is falsifiable and makes meaningful predictions. ID is NOT a scientific theory because it meets neither of those requirements. ID consists entirely of criticizing evolution, as if disproving one makes the other true.

Imagine if I propose, as the Onion did, a theory of Intelligent Falling. I then go around criticizing the theory of gravity, saying for example that we don’t even know how gravity could work at a distance, that nobody has observed a so-called “graviton,” and that Einstein’s theory of gravitation doesn’t even mesh with quantum theory! (All of these criticisms are correct, as far as I know.)

Now I ask you, what are the odds that every thing on Earth just HAPPENS to be attracted to the center of the planet? Why that would be like throwing all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle at a table and having them miraculously form the completed puzzle! And what are the odds that gravity is just strong enough to hold the atmosphere but not so strong as to collapse the planet?! And what are the odds that it's exactly the right strength to let humans run and birds fly? I mean WHAT ARE THE ODDS?? Obviously, this can't just happen by chance! Therefore, I would conclude, there must be an intelligent being which makes objects be attracted to each other in just the right amounts. Hence, we should teach the theory of Intelligent Falling (IF) along with the theory of gravity.

I challenge you to demonstrate why we should teach ID but not IF.

Great Non-believers: Bill Gates

The richest man in the world has given "37% of his wealth--more than $28 billion--to charitable causes, largely via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation," says Forbes magazine. It's tempting to discount Gates' generosity on account of his wealth, but, as Forbes points out, if you "add up the donations made by billionaires Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison and Steve Ballmer and you get about $2.55 billion--not even the equivalent of a decent tip on a $28-billion tab."

The Gates foundation spends the bulk of its money on global health, fighting AIDS and malaria, with education coming in second. (Obligatory shot at religion: None is wasted on building bigger churches, preachers' salaries, or proselytizing.)

Gates is an agnostic, although he seems to respect religious principles. In a PBS interview with David Frost, he said, "I don't know if there's a god or not, but I think religious principles are quite valid." When a TIME reporter asked, "Isn't there something special, perhaps even divine, about the human soul?" he replied, "I don't have any evidence on that."

Despite my admiration for Gates's philanthropy, of course, I reserve the right to hate Microsoft. :-)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Are Scientists Stupid?

Wolfish Musings points out an excellent letter to the editor (scroll down to "Cheap Shots At Scientists Don't Change Truth.") I get so sick of religious people who understand less science than the average college bio major but are positive that they know the fatal flaw in the scientists' theories.

Virtually every point made by Rabbi Eidensohn in his letter of December 9 reflects significant misunderstandings about the science that he is attempting to criticize. However, it's not the errors in Rabbi Eidensohn's letter that I find most troubling. What disturbs me more is the smug belief, evidently shared by many in the yeshiva world [I would add "many in the ID/Creationist world," too --JA], that the working scientist is on average less intelligent than the typical potted plant.

How else can we explain the rabbi's readiness to believe that he has discovered fundamental problems in the theories of physics or biology that have escaped the notice of scientists who study these fields professionally? Such an attitude reflects either an unusual degree of hubris or a fundamental belief that scientists are all bumbling idiots. I suggest it's the latter.

For example, the rabbi triumphantly cites the second law of thermodynamics as evidence against the possibility of evolutionary processes. Does he think the scientists who study thermodynamics and biological processes have absent-mindedly overlooked this issue? Or that because of their unfortunate stupidity they just cannot quite grasp the basic principles of thermodynamics that the rabbi somehow innately comprehends?

Surely even the faintest degree of respect for scientists' intellectual capacities would have led the rabbi to inquire whether they had previously considered this issue. And they have. It's discussed in many popular science books and on about 300,000 websites, which I assume are not yet banned in Monsey.

(Incidentally, if the rabbi will re-read his own letter, he will find that his repeated use of the term "closed system" provides an important clue to understanding why evolutionary processes do not violate the second law.)

The yeshiva world has long found it convenient to ridicule science and scientists, and the rabbi's letter exposes a common conceit that a yiddishe kup and high school diploma provides better insight into the fundamental questions of science than does eight years of dedicated graduate study and a career of scientific experimentation. Well, let me break the bad news — a yiddishe kup and high school diploma [or reading a few creationist websites and books --JA] provide virtually no insight whatsoever into the fundamental questions of science, especially considering the cadaverous state of most yeshiva science curricula.

I don't mean to suggest that the layperson shouldn't exercise his or her full intellectual abilities in trying to critically assess and assimilate the latest scientific findings. One need not believe everything one is told, by scientists or by anyone else.

But the fact of the matter is that scientists are generally highly educated and intelligent people who have a substantial level of competence in their fields of study. Their methods of investigation and analysis have proved staggeringly effective over the past 300 years.

The image of the "idiot scientist" conjured up in Rabbi Eidensohn's letter may be comforting to some, but it's ultimately just crude escapism.

David Fass

Highland Park, NJ

(All emphasis added.)

The Wolf adds that perhaps people don't think scientists are stupid so much as that they are conspiring to hide the truth. As he points out, if you're going to believe that, you might as well believe that the moon landings were faked or that the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Area 51.