Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Blatent idiocy by Jonathan Sachs

I keep hearing that rabbis are intellectually formidable, with vast wealth of knowledge and an impressively scholarly tradition. I have to say that I have seen no evidence of this: although my personal experience of rabbis is admittedly limited, I have never once been impressed by anything they've had to say. Perhaps I'm just expecting too much. Rabbis have a reputation for 'worldliness' and for interpreting the bible in ways that make sense to modern society. Aside from the fact that if the bible were indeed the work of an all-powerful god, it should hardly need interpreting by people who, when it comes down to it, have no more idea about the universe than anyone else. It seems that these days, the more prominent the priest, the more they try to reconcile their religion with science (and I do count the pope in this, he's just several hundred years behind the curve). Its as though they realise that they are losing, that science has got it right and the best they can do is hang on with their fingernails until the gravy train ride is over. I get the impression that many would feel great and genuine relief in throwing up their hands and saying "OK, yes, you win. It's all a lot of nonsense really" and getting a proper job like everyone else.

This certainly seems true of many of today's C of E bishops, many of whom are barely deists. I sometimes wonder if they got into the religion business because it was an indoor job with no heavy lifting, you only work one day a week and get a free house. And then it all got a bit out of hand. This also seems true of the rabbi Jonathan Sachs, as shown by this article:


Sachs bends over backwards to be nice to science, but still has to conclude that god exists anyway. I can't help but wonder who he is trying to convince. He begins:
What [Darwin] dealt a death blow to was one very poor argument for the existence of God, namely the argument from design
Well, not quite. While I agree that the argument from design is a very poor one, it wasn't considered so in Darwin's day. It is only with hindsight - and after Darwin - that Sachs is able to call the argument poor. Here Sachs is belittling Darwin's achievement. He is saying that Darwin's ideas don't do away with god altogether, just the assertion that god must exist because everything looks designed. This is dishonest. Although evolution doesn't and couldn't disprove god, it does mean that there is no need for god in explaining the diversity of life. It means we can no longer use our ignorance of the natural world to conclude a supernatural creator.

Sachs is saying "ah HA, but god might exist anyway!" And yet he calls the argument from design a poor one.
This argument [from design] figures nowhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Of course it doesn't. Why would the bible contain arguments for the existence of the god it asserts? But think about what Sachs is saying here: he is again diminishing the importance of Darwin by rubbishing the argument from design. He's saying that the argument is not a central part of biblical teaching, so it doesn't matter that Darwin pulled it completely apart. This is good, old fashioned dishonesty as well as an incoherent argument. The argument from design is not needed in the bible for two reasons. First, as I've said, why would it be needed? It was written by and for people who already accepted the existence of gods and who didn't know about things like evolution and cosmology. It is relating anecdotes about a particular idea of god, so it assumes belief. Second, the bible explicitly states that god created the world, people, animals and so on. If it then used the existence of life to imply god, the argument would be both redundant and circular.
What might a religious believer say to Darwin’s heirs? The following thoughts are purely hypothetical, but he or she might say, first, that Darwin helped us to understand the “how” of God’s “Let there be”. The Creator created not just life but life that is in itself creative.
This is a well-known and tedious argument, but its proponents seem to genuinely think they are making a novel and astonishing point with every telling. Yes, of course it is possible that god kicked off evolution, just as it is possible that there isn't a god and it happened some other way. Not only is this classic god-of-the-gaps thinking, but it suffers from the Russell's teapot problem. Why must the 'something' that began the process of evolution be the very god you happen to believe in? The fact is that you don't know, so your assertion is wild speculation at best. But Sachs then continues in a simply astonishing vein:
That may be the meaning of the otherwise untranslatable phrase in Genesis ii, 3, that on the seventh day God rested “from all His work that God had created la’asot”, which means literally “to do, act, make”.
Excuse me? The all-powerful all-knowing god is telling us about evolution and this is the clearest he can be? This displays all the desperation of a cold-reader's audience to mangle whatever is said to fit the facts.
Darwin brought new depth to this idea.
So under pretence of reverence for Darwin and his work, Sachs further relegates him to having just expanded on the theory of evolution first presented in one word in the bible. This is extraordinary mental gymnastics.
The covenant with Noah after the flood was made also, as Genesis ix states five times, “with every living creature”. The Bible forbids cruelty to animals. This is the polar opposite of the view of Descartes, that animals lack souls and therefore can be used as we will.
First, Sachs shows that he believes in Noah and the flood, which pretty much blows away what little scientific credibility he is trying (and failing) to establish. But perhaps he can be forgiven for his lack of understanding of the geological record. After all, he's a theologian rather than a scientist. Odd then that he doesn't appear to have read the bible. I'm thinking in particular of Leviticus, where there are lengthy and numerous passages explaining exactly how to kill, bleed and burn animals, because god likes the smell. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that killing things for fun is cruel. The Descartes reference is also odd, for two reasons. First, why suddenly mention Descartes? Is Sachs suggesting that atheists revere his work? Second, the current view, which - I think it is fair to say - is in the tradition of Descartes and those who followed, is that humans are animals. Our ethics on animal cruelty must come from that knowledge. Conversely, the bible holds the interests of humans entirely separate from and unambiguously above those of other animals: there is a definite them-and-us policy, which is of course where certain creationists get their bile. Sachs seems to have chosen a deliberately repugnant idea to falsely represent the view of atheists, but hasn't even converted this straw man into a winning argument. The covenant with Noah in no way forbids animal cruelty and it is jaw-droppingly dishonest to claim it does.

Sachs immediately follows this with another form of dishonesty, that of deliberately quoting out of context, in this case, from the highly respected scientist Matt Ridley:]
“There was only one creation, one single event when life was born.”
Here Ridley is not using 'creation' in the sense of 'created by god', he is using it to illustrate that all life today has a common ancestor. Sachs follows this slight-of-hand with:
The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.
This doesn't even make any sense and certainly can not be said to follow from Ridley's quote, even if we accept for a moment that he was writing about supernatural creation.

Sachs plays a similar trick on Martin Reese, who is one of the most respected scientists on Earth. Reese's book Just Six Numbers talks about the 'constants' of the universe: physical properties of the universe that, if they had been even slightly different, would have resulted in a universe we couldn't exist in. Isn't it convenient, Sachs is implying, that the universe just happens to be finely tuned for life? This is becoming a tedious argument as well. In fact, Rees presents a solution to this dilemma based on the idea of many universes, but we don't need a physical model to show that the argument is incorrect. The anthropomorphic principle will do quite nicely on its own.

Sachs continues to rattle off entirely random bits of poorly-understood scientific knowledge, giving every impression that he got it from the blurb on the back of pop-science books. He is especially misguided in trying to apply Goedel's incompleteness theorem outside a formal system.

He ends with the all too familiar suggestion that science is a wonderful thing because the more we know about the universe, the more we have to praise god about. All this shows is that Sachs hasn't understood the first thing about science; that he is a classic god-of-the-gaps spouting pseudo-intellectual, retreating ever further into the narrower and narrower gaps left by rational enquiry; and that he is desperately back peddling to reconcile religious belief with the obvious fact that god doesn't exist.

It seems that he wants to end on a condescending note: science is really just a branch of theology, because it's all about understanding god's work, when you come to think about it. But he comes across as harried combatant, fighting a rearguard action in a non-existent war.

Is this the type of formidable intellectualism we are told to expect from rabbis?

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