An Orthodox rabbi and Steven Weinberg walk into an email exchange…

Ever since I posted my obituary for the great Steven Weinberg three months ago, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails—all of which I’ve appreciated enormously—from people who knew Steve, or were influenced by him, and who wanted to share their own thoughts and memories. Last week, I was contacted by one Moshe Katz, an Orthodox rabbi, who wanted to share a long email exchange that he’d had with Steve, about Steve’s reasons for rejecting his birth-religion of Judaism (along with every other religion). Even though Rabbi Katz, rather than Steve, does most of the talking in this exchange, and even though Steve mostly expresses the same views he’d expressed in many of his public writings, I knew immediately on seeing this exchange that it could be of broader interest—so I secured permission to share it here on Shtetl-Optimized, both from Rabbi Katz and from Steve’s widow Louise.

While longtime readers can probably guess what I think about most of the topics discussed, I’ll refrain from any editorial commentary in this post—but of course, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments, and maybe I’ll join in. Mostly, reading this exchange reminded me that someone at some point should write a proper book-length biography of Steve, and someone should also curate and publish a selection of his correspondence, much like Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track did for Richard Feynman. There must be a lot more gems to be mined.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the exchange (10 pages, PDF).

Update (Nov. 2, 2021): By request, see here for some of my own thoughts.

101 Responses to “An Orthodox rabbi and Steven Weinberg walk into an email exchange…”

  1. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott’s first post inspired me to buy a copy of Weinberg’s “Lectures on Astrophysics”.

    LOA emphasizes fun topics where you can get some analytic answers, and goes right up to the edge, all presented by an excellent teacher and total genius. It is a joy to read (for someone with a Physics MS from the 1970’s).

    Check it out!

  2. Ransom Says:

    I find that big questions about the meaning or significance of things are well served by an observation that Mr. Weinberg hints at but does not insist upon: that to mean something must be to mean something to someone.

  3. Ira Glazer Says:

    “Dear Professor Weinberg,

    I want to assure you that I am not a ‘nudge’ who’s going to be e-mailing you every day, but I just can’t help myself”

  4. Scott Says:

    Ira Glazer #3: LOL, I always just mentally translate “I don’t want to be a nudge” into “I will now proceed to be a nudge” 🙂

  5. Gabriele Says:

    I am amazed by the patience of Prof. Weinberg. Seriously, this seems to me a very low quality debate from which Prof. Weinberg tried *very* politely to wriggle out a couple of times.

  6. Job Says:

    I’d like to see one of these discussions take a turn, where the participants are asked to switch sides.

    I don’t see that situation leading to an engaging debate, which is why I don’t bother with these very much. Intellectual honesty is a prerequisite for me.

    Not that Weinberg wouldn’t be up to the task.

    But maybe i’m underestimating Katz here. What do you think?

  7. GMM Says:

    More necessary translation:

    You are a mensch!

    means

    You are a mensch to put up with such a pest!

    means

    You are a mensch to put up with such a pest, so I can continue to act like a pest guilt-free.

  8. Scott Says:

    Job #6: The FQXi conference used to host “reverse debates”—where, for example, the string theorist Raphael Bousso defended loop quantum gravity while the loop quantum gravity theorist Carlo Rovelli defended string theory. The best ones were played for laughs, though. I wonder how many rabbis (or priests, or imams) would be comfortable defending atheism as an intellectual exercise!

  9. HasH Says:

    Steven Weinberg “I think Jews only began their great contributions to civilization when they freed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.” (deep respect for this answer)

    My scientist heroes are mostly Jew, but atheist or agnostic ones. I can’t understand how supragenius minds can believe a person claim spoke with god behind burning bush and shape all his people with those “commands”. Or son of God or their far cousin who claim ending communication era with god. My father deeply believe in when Imam tells story about Imam Ali, who broke castle’s door with just hitting it with his shoulder.. when I show him historic castle door and trying to explain how these stories are nonsense, he yells with rage “how I am infidel and hell just for us” 🙂 I am not blaming him, he is just a village person, didn’t have formal education. Just blindly follow preachers like others did before enlightment. But how a true scientist can believe these stories?

    Rabbi Moshe said:
    “Professor Weinberg, I think that many of your “issues” with religion are, as you said, not so much with the religious heritage we share, but with Christianity based on its moral record and with its lack of rationality.”

    “In my mind, the Jewish people changed the world with its Torah,… they helped spread the message that the Jewish people (believe they) received from God.”

    “And the shedding of blood done in the name of that belief must be totally rejected!”

    Death penalty reasons from Torah:
    – “Blasphemy”
    – “Drug users for the purposes of hallucinogenic experiences.”
    – “Worshipping Baal- The death penalty here was specifically impaling.”
    – “A foreigner (outsider) who gets close to the tabernacle.”
    – “Adultery with a married woman.- Both parties were to die.”
    – “Male on male sexual intercourse.”
    – “Cursing a parent”
    – “A son who persists in disobeying his parents”. (Wikipedia).
    (I’m not bothering list what Quran says, they all look same to me. )

    Sound rational, moral or changed world in a positive way because these messages from a god?

  10. Fnord Says:

    I don’t get the Rabbi’s arguments at all. “Look, we did something good, therefore the reason why we did it must be true!” is simply a non sequitur.

    Frankly, to me, there is only one thing that keeps a tiny sliver of doubt alive regarding anything beyond pure science is the fact that I don’t buy into the current attempts of explaining consciousness. In my mind, pretty literally, scientific methods by definition cannot explain consciousness – the cogito ergo sum that I feel, with all its extensions.

    But to me that means only that there is – possibly – a world beyond current physics (and science in general by current definition) that may be forever out of reach to such methods. Why that should translate to “there’s some magic being(s) that created us, gave us rules or purpose” or whatever else a religion’s claim may be, that remains a mystery to me.

  11. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Discussing religion with a person who takes religion seriously is a challenging task. It is probably a no-win situation, and generally wise to avoid.

    I once slipped up and answered a question from a very smart person about what I might believe in, religion wise. I replied with my take on the “God of Spinoza”, which is that God wrote the 17 or so laws underlying physics on a whiteboard, popped open an ice cold PBD, sat down on a lawn chair, and said “Let ‘er rip!”. The reply was: “He wouldn’t do that.”.

  12. Ira Glazer Says:

    @Scott #4

    That’s because your favorite function is f(x) = -x 😉

  13. Daniel Reeves Says:

    Scott #8: See also Ideological Turing Tests!
    https://notes.andymatuschak.org/z8oZrKkvviHRuCbtHtHihuwytdFyL5CsAWUSb

  14. Nick Nolan Says:

    I think the correct order of debate is:

    1. First religious people from different faiths debate among themselves until they get common ground.
    2. Then they have final face-off with Atheists.
  15. JimV Says:

    I especially liked Dr. Weinberg’s position on free will, which I had not heard before, because it is mine also! Yes, our choices are deterministic, because without determinism there is no causality and no way to make rational choices; but we still make them, as best we can, and are responsible for them. Just as AlphaGo made some beautiful moves against the South Korean World Champion, to become the champion of Go.

    So there are at least two of us with that position, which I did not know before now. (There were a couple comment threads at Back Reaction in which I seemed to be the only one with that exact position.) (More of a general public forum there, though.)

    I can certainly see why Dr. Weinberg stopped replying. I would have been tempted to set up an automatic reply, such as “Asked and answered, as to morality and humankind’s place in the universe. For physics questions, see Wikipedia.”

    I have read two collections of Dr. Feynman stories, and the Gleick biography, but did not known about the collection of letters. Thanks for mentioning it.

    As for the statement that only religion can make good people do bad things, it seems to me one of those clever statements which however is a bit over-general for the sake of wit. I would say evolution gave us both cooperative and competitive instincts, and the former tends to apply within a particular association and the latter outside, but that is not as witty or memorable.

  16. Luca Says:

    I like the part of the exchange that goes like

    Rabbi: “The Torah invented charity and the value of all human lives”

    Weinberg: “What about Job and Abraham?”

    Rabbi: “Moving on to the meaning of life …”

  17. Scott Says:

    Luca #16: I feel like being an Orthodox rabbi might put you at a disadvantage in such exchanges, in that you can’t say things that could help your case but that deviate from Orthodoxy. E.g., you can’t say, “yes, the Torah is full of what today we rightly recognize as barbarities. But it represented a big improvement over the even more barbaric status quo of its time and place, where, for example, human sacrifices to Baal and Moloch were accepted custom. In that context, the Binding of Isaac, besides all the allegorical interpretations that people have attached to it for 3,000 years, had a very obvious practical meaning. It simply meant: God doesn’t want us to sacrifice people anymore. We should just sacrifice sheep and goats and the like instead. (And then eat most of the sacrifice ourselves, giving the whole thing the character of a religiously sanctified BBQ.)”

  18. Gerard Says:

    Scott #17

    I’m curious, and not knowing much about the details of Jewish teachings, especially in the areas where they might differ from Christian views, wouldn’t a modern Rabbi explain the story of Abraham’s sacrifice more or less as you have here ? I was under the impression that the rabbinic tradition contained many teachings intended to explain and make sense of the written Torah. Are the Orthodox really sticking to literal interpretations the way fundamentalist Christians do ?

  19. Nick Drozd Says:

    Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel along with Weinberg, had a very different relationship with religion.

    His tombstone in Pakistan says “IN 1979 BECAME THE FIRST NOBEL LAUREATE FOR HIS WORK IN PHYSICS.” Wow, he was the first Nobel laureate? Well, no. The inscription initially said “THE FIRST MUSLIM NOBEL LAUREATE”, but the word “MUSLIM” got scratched out.

    Salam was a so-called Ahmadi Muslim. From what I gather, Ahmadis are Muslims in roughly the same way that Mormons are Christians. That is, Ahmadis / Mormons consider themselves to be Muslims / Christians, but many mainstream Muslims / Christians consider them not to be. In particular, it was officially decreed in Pakistan that Ahmadis were not Muslims, and that included Salam.

    So even though Salam quoted from the Quran in his Nobel acceptance speech, his tombstone ended up getting defaced by a fundamentalist bureaucrat.

  20. Scott Says:

    Gerard #18: Oh, Orthodox rabbis would say many things about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, often disagreeing with one another! But I doubt many would argue quite what I did here—namely, that the story likely had a lot to do with actual practical reforms to stamp out human sacrifice, just like the story of the golden calf likely had a lot to do with actual practical reforms to stamp out idol worship. That might come uncomfortably close to conceding what the archeological record indicates, that Judaism gradually evolved out of a milieu in which sacrifices (including human sacrifices) to Baal, Moloch, El, and other deities were commonplace, and Yahweh (along with his then-consort Asherah) was one of many deities who were sacrificed to, before He got promoted to the only deity in existence. That account, of course, would be hard to square with a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible, although many, many indications of it remain in the Bible.

  21. Ashley Says:

    The deepest statement in that exchange (though one would probably consider it a cliché) could be this:

    “The homeless person’s life may well be meaningful to him. Just being able to look at
    the sky is enough to make life worth while.”

    That so well describes what is probably the whole point of (at least) human existence.

  22. Pace Nielsen Says:

    Even though I come from the perspective of being a true believer in God, I found that Steven Weinberg expressed some important questions and comments, both explicit and implicit. Here are just a few of those questions, put into my own words, that impressed me.

    1. How can I believe in God, or at least many of the current religions, when so much evil has been done in His name?

    2. If God is not real, wouldn’t it be wrong to teach a morality based on that lie?

    3. How can I believe in God if he transcends human experience?

    4. Hasn’t scientific exploration/explanation led to greater morality? Couldn’t it help us determine meaning for ourselves?

    My answers to these questions/comments would have been much different than the rabbi’s, mostly because I also come from a scientific/mathematical background, but also because socratic questioning does not seem to help answer them.

    I would have strongly agreed with Steven’s point in #3, and (if it felt right) I would have shared with him my personal experiences with God answering my questions, which showed (to me) that He does interact with us in ways we can understand.

  23. Moshe Katz Says:

    Hi folks. This is Moshe Katz, Steven Weinberg’s friend.
    I say that because I did not sense that he was rolling his
    eyes and looking for an escape from me. I think that he
    thought I was raising reasonable questions, as much as he
    totally disagreed with me.
    He was very respectful, referring to me as “Rabbi” although
    I signed off “Moshe”.
    I think we need a reset here. You are all free to discuss
    whatever you like. But in terms of my exchange with Steven?
    I made no attempt to argue for or prove the existence of God
    or the truth of Judaism. I began our exchange by saying that I was
    not writing about God but, rather, about man.
    The fact that I am a Rabbi is not really relevant to my challenge.
    An atheist could / should raise the same question.
    He calls religion an affront to human dignity. I made the point
    that the notion of human dignity as we understand it today, did not exist
    in the ancient world. I demonstrated that with Ancient Greece.
    I attributed the change to the Torah. Steven, to science. That defies my
    understanding. He chose to not “argue about history”.
    My point was / is that he is free to dismiss religion and its impact on the
    world. Or acknowledge the impact but say it was in error, not true.
    But you need to be able to explain, absent G-d, why specks on a speck in the
    universe, are important and have dignity.
    (Hawking says we are “an advanced species of monkeys” and are only special
    because we can understand the universe).
    His response that we “invent our own importance ” , to me means that we don’t
    really have importance.
    Similarly, I asked him about his statement that we can make our lives
    meaningful by, among other things, trying to understand the universe.
    I asked him why it’s meaningful to understand a meaningless universe.
    Again, I was not trying to prove that there is a G-d.
    His response was, “Seems like a better way to leave, and, why not”.
    Seems weak to me.
    My main point remains that the atheist may or not be right, but he needs to confront
    the fact that we are not important and human dignity is a dream.
    I remain honored that he responded to my questions.

  24. Ashley Says:

    Religion did have a positive social impact didn’t it?

    I thought of checking out on slavery in the US. These are some of the things I could read right away (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery#Abolitionism): “A prominent critic of slavery in the Spanish New World colonies was the Spanish missionary and bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas”, and “One of the first protests against slavery came from German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1688”. Wasn’t Weinberg wrong in not finding a ‘historical connection’? Wrong as in being prejudiced in views and not bothering.

    I also checked out about the Age of Enlightenment, and I found that “The Enlightenment has its roots in a European intellectual and scholarly movement known as Renaissance humanism and was also preceded by the Scientific Revolution and the work of Francis Bacon, among others”, and, in turn, “During the Renaissance period most humanists were Christians, so their concern was to “purify and renew Christianity”, not to do away with it.”

    Of course I just did a few minutes of only ‘Wikipedia research’, but it is still pretty convincing to me from what I saw that there was a historical connection.

    Moreover, the Rabbi’s logic that there is nothing in physics, chemistry or biology that says anything about human dignity, and hence you can’t associate human dignity with the sciences is correct. Isn’t it?

  25. Job Says:

    Ashley #24

    Religion did have a positive social impact didn’t it?

    Do you mean positive, or net-positive?

    Religion also played a significant role in driving European colonialism, for example.

    I don’t think we can really estimate the net impact of religion on society, beyond picking data points.

    But in my view, it would be a sufficient indictment of religion to show that it had no more than a neutral impact on society.

    It ought to be a clear positive?

  26. Job Says:

    Moshe Katz #24

    His response that we “invent our own importance ” , to me means that we don’t
    really have importance.

    That was actually my favorite part of the exchange:

    We invent our own importance, which is hard and therefore all the more admirable.

    We do invent our own self-importance.

    And it is hard because it’s such a fallacy that one would have to circumvent many logical checks in order to pull it off.

    It’s admirable that humans can solve such a complex problem, really.

  27. Ira Glazer Says:

    Gerard #17

    > Are the Orthodox really sticking to literal interpretations the way fundamentalist Christians do ?

    Orthodox Judaism understands ‘The Written Torah’ (The Old Testament) *ONLY* in the way it is interpreted by ‘The Oral Torah (The Rabbinic tradition, initially, and principally, the Talmud).

  28. skolymos Says:

    Fnord (Comment #10 October 22nd, 2021 at 6:20 pm ) says: “the cogito ergo sum that I feel”.
    Isn’t this “ergo sum” redundant because “cogito” already presupposes a “sum”?

  29. Bagel Says:

    I think Dr. Weinberg’s comment about Jewish scientific contribution is underappreciated. Anecdotally, I think many accomplished Jewish scientists are the grandchildren of famous rabbis, but are not themselves practicing. The examples that come immediately to mind are Kahneman and Tversky, but I need to go dig up my copy of Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project to confirm it.

    Religious Judaism does famously have a strong academic tradition, with attitudes dating back to ancient times – such as recording minority opinions in case law – that continue to influence modern institutions. It would be very interesting if something about being raised in the scholastic tradition of Jewish liturgy helps prepare people for entirely unrelated ones (such as psychology). It seems it should be especially interesting for those of us who believe that Judaism’s cosmological claims are untrue, since education is often untransmissible even among related sciences and maths.

  30. (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:

    Bagel #29
    “I think Dr. Weinberg’s comment about Jewish scientific contribution is underappreciated.”
    Dr Weinberg did not comment about Jewish scientific contribution.
    He was responding to my observation that Jews comprise less than 2% of the US population yet the Jewish Federation is one of the largest charities in the world. That is clearly a very positive result of Jews being molded by the Torah that made charity a moral obligation.
    (Religious Christians have this value as well.)
    He responded, “I think Jews only began their great contributions to civilization when they freed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.”
    That leaves me scratching my head!
    Speak to the president of ant Jewish Federation and they will tell you that they are very nervous, because as Jewish identity weakens, Jews give less charity.

  31. Ashley Says:

    Job #25

    People were colonizing (etc.) even when they were not interested in propagating their religion. So, to answer your question I think the net effect is clearly positive.

  32. Becca Says:

    @Moshe Katz
    >>He responded, “I think Jews only began their great contributions to civilization when they freed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.”
    That leaves me scratching my head!
    Speak to the president of ant Jewish Federation and they will tell you that they are very nervous, because as Jewish identity weakens, Jews give less charity.

    I think what the heads of the Jewish Federation are worried about is that as Jewish Identity weakens, Jewish give less charity *to Jewish Causes*, not more charity all together. If you have data to back up that Jews contribute less total, as their Jewish Identity weakens, I’d love to see it.

  33. Job Says:

    Ashley #31

    People were colonizing (etc.) even when they were not interested in propagating their religion. So, to answer your question I think the net effect is clearly positive.

    That (etc.) is the important part.

    But i’ll only point out that religion’s role in (etc.) was neutral at best.

  34. Gerard Says:

    skolymos #28

    > Isn’t this “ergo sum” redundant because “cogito” already presupposes a “sum”?

    Yes, that’s exactly why “cogito ergo sum” is a logically true proposition.

  35. Ian Finn Says:

    I don’t like that this exchange, at least in part, has devolved into what seems like “point scoring” against Professor Weinberg. Easy to score on someone who can’t return the ball and who really didn’t want to play the game anyway.

  36. Scott Says:

    Ian Finn #35: I’m not sure what you’re talking about, given that the vast majority of commenters here have taken Weinberg’s side!

  37. Baruch Says:

    Scott#20 : Yes! A common piece of liturgy from Exodus says “Who is like you among the gods” (ba-elim). It was one God over many gods (Asherah, Baal, etc). Only in Isaiah does true monotheism, excluding other gods become important, and only after Judaism became Hellenized does it resemble today’s Judaism. Thank you Greeks!

    Last week’s parsha was about Abraham doubting God (his choices, not existence), which reminded me of Weinberg’s quote,” I belong to the branch of Judaism called atheism.”

    On a sadder note I fear that the echo chambers of social media and the conspiracies they allow to flourish are dangerous for the growth of anti-semitic acts like the ones that happened today in Austin. (I appreciate that they want us vaccinated, but I already got my shot!)

  38. Scott Says:

    Baruch #37: I had to look up what happened, but apparently someone hung a banner above an overpass in Austin saying “Vax the Jews”?? So, like, when antisemitism becomes loony enough, and mixed in with enough other loony beliefs, it comes full circle and starts to simulate philosemitism? 🙂

  39. Job Says:

    My main point remains that the atheist may or not be right, but he needs to confront the fact that we are not important and human dignity is a dream.

    I think you have it backwards.

    First you consider and confront that reality and then you become an atheist.

    That’s why some people aren’t atheists, they’re procrastinating. 🙂

  40. JimV Says:

    Moishe Katz at #23:

    “… human dignity as we understand it today, did not exist in the ancient world. I demonstrated that with Ancient Greece.”

    Solon, Plato, Aristotle, and others had much to say about justice, which was an important part of the evolution of human society. In Mary Renault’s “The Last of the Wine”, a baby whose family cannot support him when their city is under siege with food running out is left on a hillside. The mother is told it might be found there by a childless family who can spare the food–probably not, but it is the best hope they have. In Leviticus, the just punishment for hitting a pregnant woman and causing her to abort is the fine of a calf. Your demonstration seems rather one-sided.

    “But you need to be able to explain, absent G-d, why specks on a speck in the universe, are important and have dignity.”

    First you must explain why you don’t stop beating your wife. (This not meant as an insult, but to illustrate why questions of that form which assume facts not in evidence are fallacious.)

    Second, the abstract notion of a God, absent scientific evidence of its existence, explains nothing. Without knowing where it came from, what it is made of, and how it works, it is just another name for ignorance, like the word magic. By definition, magic and gods are inexplicable. That which cannot be explained has no explanatory value. It is like when a child asks why it rains and someone replies, “Because the Rain God makes it rain.” I see no difference between that and saying, “It rains because it rains.” (Again, absent verifiable evidence of a Rain God.)

    Thirdly, I don’t feel very important or dignified. I know in a few billion years the Sun will expand and destroy all local evidence that humanity ever existed, that the universe got along fine without us for several billion years, and that the way things are going we will destroy what civilization we have probably within another thousand years or so. Meanwhile, we reliably produce people like Trump, in more numbers than Ghandi’s and Mandela’s.

    Fourthly, the instinctual emotions we have of egotism and aggrandizement were developed over a billion years by trial and error (evolution) because the desires to survive and prosper and raise children serve the evolutionary purposes of survival and reproduction. We all come from a very, very long line of survivors and reproducers. Hence when someone challenges our world view we tend to respond, although it is usually a waste of time and a source of annoyance, as they say about trying to teach an elephant to dance.

  41. Ryan Alweiss Says:

    A Holocaust survivor lives a long and happy life, and dies and goes to heaven. He is hanging out with G-d and the angels, and he tells a Holocaust joke. “Not funny”, says G-d. The man then replies “well, you had to have been there”.

  42. ultimaniacy Says:

    Moshe Katz #23:

    “He calls religion an affront to human dignity. I made the point
    that the notion of human dignity as we understand it today, did not exist
    in the ancient world. I demonstrated that with Ancient Greece.
    I attributed the change to the Torah.”

    The Torah predates Ancient Greek philosophy by a good deal. So if the changes you are describing occurred after the time of Plato and Aristotle, as your emails seem to imply, then why attribute them to texts written centuries or millennia earlier? Maybe what you mean is that the world learned these ideas through the Christian Bible, and therefore indirectly from the Torah? That would make more sense chronologically, but if so, why say “the Jewish people changed the world” and not “the Christian religion changed the world”?

    “But you need to be able to explain, absent G-d, why specks on a speck in the
    universe, are important and have dignity.”

    This is backwards. The importance of a creator is judged by the importance of his or her creations, not the other way around. Suppose we found out that Einstein did not really come up with the theory of relativity, or that Shakespeare did not really write Hamlet. Such a discovery would diminish our perception of the greatness of Einstein or Shakespeare, but would not in the least diminish the importance of relativity or Hamlet. If we assign a self-evident importance to the creator of humanity, it must be because of the importance we assign to humans themselves; but to do that, we first need a way to derive the importance of humans which does not itself assume the greatness of their creator. So the question is not how to explain the importance of humans without invoking the greatness of God, but how to explain the importance of God without invoking the greatness of humans.

  43. Matt Says:

    What bums me out about “science vs. religion” debates is how predictable the lines of disagreement and argument will be. Not too differently from US partisan politics. Both sides try in vain to argue against a warped and thoroughly misunderstood caricature of “what the other side believes.” The opportunity for genuine inquiry and patient listening is quickly bypassed in favor of pointless point scoring.

    At its core, religion is the sum of thousands of years of inherited cultural transmission. It is literally billions of humans attempting to answer questions like “what sort of person should I be?” The people who started that conversation used the tools they had – ritual, symbology, and the concepts of discipline and sacrifice. The cultural and psychological hooks they discovered and exploited helped start pulling humanity out of savagery. Super slowly, compared to the progress we take for granted.

    So now the trouble is, we have some really good established wisdom on things like charity, community, humility, respect – virtues. Wrapped in a package of mythology, codified in story form but often actively (re)interpreted, replete with cringey, antiquated proscriptions and horror stories.

    To a scientist, it sounds like: the docs are a jumbled mess, the actual methods in use are inconsistently applied, and the claims are unverifiable. Which triggers the sort of small-minded people who want to “disprove” religion by taking pot shots at burning bushes or rules about meat.

    Meanwhile, science actively claims not to know the truth, and to only be certain in that which is repeatedly demonstrable and verifiable. And that every now and again, even those certainties are put to new tests.

    Ideally practiced, it is humble respect for the reality, inflexibility, and relative permanence of the world around us. And an act of charity to bring new shared understanding to the greater human community. But it’s also super, super easy for bad practitioners to tip over into hubris, arrogance, and the slavish exploitation of discovered possibility instead of an inquiry into questions of “should” and “ought.”

    To a religious person, accustomed to explanatory tales that try to cover all bases, and relying on faith in one’s correctness, claiming to not know or not be able to explain something comes off as being dodgy, useless, or incomplete. And producing occasional immoral monsters seems like a terrible risk of turning society away from virtue. So smaller-minded people who want to dunk for their team will take potshots at the big bang, or any reductionist objectification and depersonalization going on anywhere.

    Science should stop picking on religion’s archaic, tribal, and savage origins. It should turn its tools of explanation onto generating new and better insights into the “why” and “how” of the “shoulds” and “oughts” that have made us more civilized. They should patiently, kindly, try to coax religion away from the mysticism, like helping your brother through rehab.

    Religion, on the other hand, should NOT give up its convictions. It should continue holding science and society to account, and continue to insist on, and celebrate, virtue everywhere. It should make sure we remain humble about our influence in the universe, even (and especially) as we begin to harness incredible destructive potential to civilization, though barely understanding it.

    Steve Weinberg seems like he was a tremendous intellect who understood many things. But I humbly submit that he missed a real opportunity for discovery, here.

  44. Set theorist Says:

    Matt #43:

    It was worth going through the entire discussion just to read your post. The only thing I disagree about is trying to coax religion away from the mysticism. Whether you refer to “mysticism” in the sense of William James or just in the sense of the complex of mythic symbols that comprise our collective unconscious, mysticism is an indispensable part of religion, similar to the way that set theory is an indispensable part of mathematics (regardless of the fact that most religious people can do without mysticism and most mathematicians can do without set theory).

  45. fred Says:

    (I’m an agnostic)

    I question the premise of “science vs religion”:

    Throughout history, the vast majority of people who expertly used reason to advance human knowledge were also religious. Luckily, the world hasn’t waited for the rise of atheists to progress, otherwise we would still be all living in caves.

    Personal beliefs about the meaning of the universe and religious institutions are two different things. Just like the scientific method and the Manhattan Project are two different things.

    We just can’t say that things not covered by the scientific method are illusions, across the board, because many of those things are clearly very real, like consciousness or love.

    What we know as humans is limited by the capacity of our brains. There may be truths that we will never comprehend.

  46. Ian Finn Says:

    ultimaniacy #42: I really wish the site had a like button! 🙂 Consider your post liked.

  47. Doug Says:

    Matt #43:
    “What bums me out about “science vs. religion” debates is how predictable the lines of disagreement and argument will be. Not too differently from US partisan politics.”

    But also Matt #43, next sentence:
    “Both sides…”

    : )

  48. (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:

    ultimaniacy Says:
    Comment #42 October 25th, 2021 at 10:35 pm
    Moshe Katz #23:

    “The Torah predates Ancient Greek philosophy by a good deal. So if the changes you are describing occurred after the time of Plato and Aristotle, as your emails seem to imply, then why attribute them to texts written centuries or millennia earlier? Maybe what you mean is that the world learned these ideas through the Christian Bible, and therefore indirectly from the Torah? That would make more sense chronologically, but if so, why say “the Jewish people changed the world” and not “the Christian religion changed the world”?

    The Torah in the original Hebrew was a “closed Book” to the ancient Greeks.
    This changed with the Septuagint, the Greek translation a few centuries after Plato.
    It was further spread by Christianity. But it was not the “Christian Bible”. They spread
    the Torah and added their New Testament. So it was the Torah that changed to world with
    marketing assistance of Christianity.
    But this is not relevant to my exchange with Professor Weinberg. The main point is that the world was changed through religious teachings.
    I focused on “our Torah” because it represents our shared heritage, still accepted by me and rejected by him.
    I didn’t invent the notion of Judaic / Christian Ethics being the foundation of Western morality.

  49. (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:

    Matt Says:
    Comment #43

    “Science should stop picking on religion’s archaic, tribal, and savage origins. It should turn its tools of explanation onto generating new and better insights into the “why” and “how” of the “shoulds” and “oughts” that have made us more civilized. They should patiently, kindly, try to coax religion away from the mysticism, like helping your brother through rehab.”

    This is the crux of another issue between me and Professor Weinberg.
    He attributed the moral development of humanity to science.
    Aside from the fact that infanticide became taboo long before modern science?
    I also made the central point that science has nothing to teach about moral values.
    A scientist has no greater moral insight than a school teacher or, for that matter, a plumber.

  50. John T. Says:

    I would answer the Rabbi that concepts like “dignity” and “morality” are social constructs, with no scientific meaning. I would concede that science is nihilistic in these areas, that questions of meaning and morality aren’t part of the scientist’s job description, so why ask a scientist about them? Wouldn’t a philosopher or religious leader who thinks about such things for a living be a better person to ask? Don’t we have more than enough know-it-all scientists opining on matters outside their areas of expertise? Maybe Prof. Weinberg’s non-response was another way of saying just that.

  51. Job Says:

    I see intellectual honesty and rigor as evidence of morality.

    Often that means having to confront a reality that’s not in your favor.
    In different contexts it’s following the facts, acknowledging bias, or making a concession.

    These are qualities promoted by science.
    Ironically, it’s religion that’s often in conflict with such basic prerequisites for ethical behavior, by its dogmatic nature.

    I would argue that science vs religion debates are not about different beliefs, they’re about different methods.

  52. fred Says:

    John T.
    “I would answer the Rabbi that concepts like “dignity” and “morality” are social constructs, with no scientific meaning. “

    But all “social constructs” are the results of natural selection/evolution.
    There’s an objective view of morality as a force that moves us away from the worst possible realities in terms of suffering/unhappiness.

  53. fred Says:

    John T.
    “questions of meaning and morality aren’t part of the scientist’s job description, so why ask a scientist about them?”

    In that case scientists should never worry about or bear any responsibility for the potential misuse of their research.
    Clearly someone like Einstein didn’t agree with this.
    There’s rarely a clear demarcation line between abstract theoretical science and practical engineering.

  54. Gerard Says:

    fred #52

    > There’s an objective view of morality as a force that moves us away from the worst possible realities in terms of suffering/unhappiness.

    That statement assumes we know the meaning of the concepts “worst”, “suffering” and “unhappiness”. But there is no objective way to define those concepts, they have meaning only subjectively, and science has no more access to them than it does to the experience of perceiving the color blue.

    The most we can hope for from science is that it help us predict the objective outcomes of different possible courses of action. Choosing between those outcomes is ultimately a non-objective act that science can do little to enlighten.

    If we created an artificial super-intelligence and gave it the goal of taking actions to minimize suffering there is a good chance it would decide to humanely exterminate all biological life. The problem is that whether that is the correct action or not depends on the alternative to biological life. If death equates to non-existence, meaning the total absence of all conscious experience, then clearly it is indeed the answer to all problems. But what if non-existence doesn’t exist ? Then this solution might be truly disastrous.

    What can science ever hope to tell us about such questions ?

  55. Zhi Says:

    Raoul Ohio #1: I looked up the reviews of this book on Amazon a while back. They did not look encouraging…

  56. HasH Says:

    Ian Finn #46:
    RIGHT? I can’t put hugging heart emoji here.. Consider all pro-science messages received “heart-hug” emoji.

  57. Woke Racism Says:

    Off-topic but interesting read: https://quillette.com/2021/10/26/woke-racism-a-review/

  58. fred Says:

    Gerard #54

    “That statement assumes we know the meaning of the concepts “worst”, “suffering” and “unhappiness”. But there is no objective way to define those concepts, they have meaning only subjectively, and science has no more access to them than it does to the experience of perceiving the color blue.”

    I totally disagree.
    Granted, evolution is about maximizing chance/rate of reproduction and not directly happiness (whatever happiness is)…
    but reproduction can’t happen before even more basic needs are met, like feeding, rest, absence of pain, and a sense of security.
    And the absence of those basic needs is what is meant by “worst” “suffering” “unhappiness”.
    In order to procreate successfully (it’s not just about the act of sex), a lot of proper conditions have to be met, to maximize the survival of not just the individual but also above all its progeny , and every animal has a drive to be in an environment that’s in the right state, and this is the seed of what human call “happiness”.
    And of course simple bacteria evolved an innate sense to move towards food and light, and move away from dangerous environments (like a lack of water, or too strong UV light, etc).
    Those very basic drives are the definition of “good” and “bad” (what else would those be?), and all the rest (most complex human emotions, or qualias) are just refinements of “good” and “bad”. Of course at the same time there can be too much of a good thing, or too little of a bad thing, so it’s all a balance: often finding food and eating is “good”, but eating beyond satiety becomes “bad”. So things are always in flux, which is why, as humans, we struggle and think that “morality” is subjective… but they’re not “subjective”, they’re “relative” and part of very complex dynamics.

    For example, we all have long term “dreams”, and think that happiness will be reached only once we fulfill those dreams. But then when we finally make it happen, the bliss is short, and soon we will feel that something else is missing, and we will start looking for the next thing to drive us. This has nothing to do with subjectivity, but with the fact that we’re wired by evolution to feel like something is always missing. These are all the little internal forces that evolution has evolved in order to balance all the drives (sometimes competing) to fill our basic needs.

    If you don’t believe me, try this: put your hand on a hot stove, this will give you a very direct definition for “worst”, “suffering”, and “unhappiness”… there’s nothing ambiguous here, at the bottom, it’s about direct survival so that eventually you can spread your genes.

  59. fred Says:

    To repeat my first posts in the thread:
    science has limitations, and it’s not because some things are not being covered by science that they ought to be dismissed as irrelevant.
    It all only shows that it is science that is imperfect and it can only bring incomplete answers.

    In many ways, science is rewriting upside down the direct experience we have of the world.
    We experience the world directly in terms of irreducible absolute truths: “good” and “bad”, and extra refinements on those two, like “blue”, which is good or bad or neutral depending on the situation, or the things that drive our curiosity and love of logic, like sense of esthetic or the pleasures of understanding. And those form our actual irreducible and undeniable reality.
    The type of “truths” that we call science are actually entirely derived from these irreducible truths of experiences and never experienced directly, they are only indirectly summoned into existence using abstract logical constructs (which separate reality will be debated forever).
    Science is really only a tool, the successful expression and continuation of the core inner drives that have been in us since life appeared.

  60. kashyap vasavada Says:

    Off Topic

    Hi,Do you have opinion on causality in Quantum Mechanics? In particular this paper

    https://physicsworld.com/a/quantum-mechanics-defies-causal-order-experiment-confirms/#:~:text=In%20classical%20physics%20%E2%80%93%20and%20everyday,affect%20the%20outcome%20of%20A.
    It is now 3 years. So I am wondering what happened to this Phys. Rev. Letter paper?
    Thanks
    Kashyap Vasavada

  61. Scott Says:

    Woke Racism #57: I’ve admired John McWhorter’s writing whenever I’ve come across it, and actually just ordered his new book this morning. I look forward to reading it.

  62. Scott Says:

    kashyap vasavada #60: As a general policy, I STRONGLY discourage “drive-by linkings,” which try to nerd-snipe me into commenting on some specific paper or article. But since you’ve successfully done that anyway 🙂 : I confess that I’ve never found “indefinite causal order” to be a particular useful concept in QM that isn’t quantum gravity. The experiment being talked about in that article could be described perfectly well in conventional QM — after all, it’s just a bunch of particles moving around under some ordinary Hamiltonian — it’s just that the language of “indefinite causal order” is then imposed on the experiment. It also satisfies the Aaronson’s First Law of Quantum Foundations Experiments, which is that as soon as the experiment is described, there’s zero reason (other than impressing naive science readers) actually to do the experiment. For we all know perfectly well what the outcome will be: namely, whatever outcome QM has predicted since 1926.

  63. Sam Says:

    Rabbi Katz claims that Judaism taught the world that “physical perfection is not relevant”.

    This is not true.

    According to the Torah, priests that had disabilities or physical imperfections were banned from the Temple. Now I’m sure that the rabbi can come up with wonderful excuses or apologetics for that, but let’s not pretend like Judaism invented modern equal rights in the time of the Ancient Greeks. Humanity evolved to be better on its own.

  64. Gerard Says:

    fred #58

    I agree with much of what you said here but it misses the point.

    Yes, of course humans have been conditioned by evolution to prefer that which is conducive to their physical well-being and the propagation of the species but that doesn’t give you objective access to the suffering of any one individual any more than the ability to measure optical spectra or retina cell responses gives you objective access to the experience of color.

    It may also be true that all suffering ultimately derives from basic biological needs but the connections are exceedingly complex and depend on the life history and degree of intellectual/spiritual evolution of each person. As a result one person may suffer from loneliness while another suffers from any exposure to others.

    There is also no way to accurately infer the degree of suffering (if any) that a particular individual will experience in the face of any particular set of objective circumstances. History records that several Indian monks happily immolated themselves in ancient Greece and that practice has continued to some degree even into contemporary times.

  65. Gerard Says:

    fred #59

    > In many ways, science is rewriting upside down the direct experience we have of the world.

    Yes therein lies what I think is the central flaw or limitation not only of science but of the entire Western intellectual tradition.

    The way I see it there are two types of knowledge: direct experiential knowledge and representational knowledge. Many Indo-European languages have two words for these concepts (though I’m not sure the corresponding semantic fields accurately reflect the concepts in any language). For example in French there is connaissance vs. savoir and in Greek γνῶσις vs. ἐπιστήμη. Actually English once had two such words as well, but in modern times the second, science, has been taken over by its specialized meaning.

    Representational knowledge is the only kind of knowledge that can be directly communicated, expressed, processed or computed but experiential knowledge is what we really care about because it is the very stuff of our life experience and it is the only thing of which we can ever truly be certain. Yet the Western tradition has largely forgotten about experiential knowledge and focused exclusively on the representational kind. You could say that we’ve become so good at making and reading maps that we’ve almost forgotten about the territory our maps are supposed to represent, to the extent that there are those who deny that the territory even exists.

  66. fred Says:

    Unless one lives in a constant state of denial about death and suffering, which is something promoted by our current society of consumption where technology is sold as the solution to everything, fundamentally it all comes down to the realities of the human condition.

    Since we’re a conscious species we’ve been facing the mysteries of being, suffering, and death.
    When facing those mysteries, there’s been two attitudes: we accept those mysteries with humility, or we hope that they can be handled by gradually controlling the environment more and more, or a mix of the two.
    And that’s what science is: the promise that eventually we will explain “being” and defeat “death”. Anything short of that is nice to have to make life more comfortable and allow to spend even more of our resources on science: agriculture, medicine, civilization, … but none of those things have changed the realities of the human condition one bit.
    But for many, it’s enough to go through life by being sufficiently distracted, until it will be time to face reality.
    The specific explanations delivered by science really don’t matter at all: whether it’s angels dancing on needles, the five elements earth/wind/fire/water/air, or the standard model, this equation vs that equation… it is whatever seems to work to help control the environment better and better.
    I’m giving a way too rosy picture of “Science” as a practical tool (physics, biology, economics), because it’s not like it’s part of some grand organized scheme.
    Science as we use it is nearly indistinguishable from how nature has used natural selection to stumble around and move “forward” (it’s not surprising since the same fundamental forces are at play). And so, for each step forward, we seem to always take a step back: nuclear weapons, global warming, dangers of AI, overpopulation, resistance of germs, gain-of-function research,… you name it.
    At this point I think that most people wouldn’t be surprised if we irreversibly screw ourselves over in the next 30 years, and the only way we see to fix all that shit is by using even more science and hope for the best.

  67. kashyap vasavada Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the reply about causality (comment #60) Sorry to violate your rule inadvertently! But since this fundamental belief was challenged in physical review letters, a prestigious journal, article, I had to ask! Perhaps you might change your rule when dealing with very fundamental issues!
    Thanks again.

  68. (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:

    Sam Says:
    Comment #63 October 28th, 2021 at 1:40 am
    “Rabbi Katz claims that Judaism taught the world that “physical perfection is not relevant”.

    This is not true.

    According to the Torah, priests that had disabilities or physical imperfections were banned from the Temple. Now I’m sure that the rabbi can come up with wonderful excuses or apologetics for that, but let’s not pretend like Judaism invented modern equal rights in the time of the Ancient Greeks. Humanity evolved to be better on its own.”

    You are correct. Judaism did not teach that “physical perfection is not relevant”.
    What it did teach, as I said in my previous paragraph, was that EVERY human being is created in the Image of God and entitled to respect, dignity and, of course, life.
    And physical imperfection is not relevant to that dignity.
    You are correct that Judaism did not invent “modern equal rights” which does not allow for any distinctions and is egalatarian, to the extreme.. But it did invent the fundamental dignity of every human being.
    And that remains the only basis for the importance of every human being.

    As per the priests, handicapped priests were not “banned from the Temple”. They just did not perform the service in the Temple which was done only by people who were from the priestly tribe, what is called a Kohain in Hebrew.
    (In this sense, all “regular Jews”, including the most pious and brilliant, are also “banned”)
    There is absolutely no distinction in Jewish law / ethics between killing an elderly, infirm , bed ridden person and killing a young brilliant scientist or rabbi.
    Spreading gossip , what we call Lashon Harah, evil tongue, a serious ethical violation in Judaism, applies to all equally.
    You do raise a very reasonable question which is often asked.
    Why does the Torah, so emphatic of(and inventor of) the dignity and worth every human being, make a distinction in this case?
    And you are also correct (you’re on a roll!) that the rabbi can offer insights into this question.
    They are beyond the scope of this conversation, but as to whether they should be dismissed as “excuses” or “apologetics” depends on one’s bias.
    I can just as well say that the Torah invented the importance of every human being, but I’m sure Professor Weinberg can offer some excuses or apologetics.
    And that is in fact what I feel he did.

  69. Laurence Cox Says:

    While Rabbi Katz’ discussion with Steven Weinberg is founded in Judaism, it comes from a quite similar position to Pope Paul II’s letter to George Coyne, then Director of the Vatican Observatory on the occasion of the Newton tercentenary (of the Principia) in 1988. The remark “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.” is frequently quoted, but the whole letter is well-worth reading:

    https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_19880601_padre-coyne.html

  70. Adi Says:

    HasH #9

    “Steven Weinberg “I think Jews only began their great contributions to civilization when they freed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.” (deep respect for this answer)”

    I do not have deep respect for this answer, which I find to be narrow in both scope and perspective, and also historically suspect. Perhaps this statement is defensible if we limited our purview to the Jewish contribution to science during the last century (a period when most Jews were non-affiliated), although some Orthodox Nobel prize winners and notable mathematicians might disagree. But the statement is definitely false if the period under consideration is extended to, for example, the Iberian golden age. Here the “obsession with Talmud and Torah” were at their peak, but Rabbinic authorities regularly made significant contributions to astronomy and mathematics (Savasorda, ibn Ezra, Gersonides, etc.).

    It also seems that Weinberg has implicitly defined “contributions to society” as limited to the exact sciences. Sure, if Maimonides spent his entire time on mathematics and astronomy, he would have been invoked more often in courses on the history of science. As it is, he is a key figure in medieval philosophy, and a legalist of sufficient import to be cited in Supreme Court decisions 750 years after his death. One could marshal many other examples from Jews of the middle ages, but I don’t find this necessary – would any knowledgeable person really argue that Judaism did not make key contribution to society (in the sciences, philosophy and legal theory) in the middle ages? The ones making these contributions were almost always the religious scholars.

    All this doesn’t even touch on the classical period, when the Jews were railing against augury while the Romans were still feeding prisoners to exotic animals for entertainment. How can one so flippantly dismiss the deep effect of Christianity on all of Europe? At the very least, after Constantine the Coliseum was a much less entertaining place.

    In short, I am wholly unimpressed.

  71. Moshe Katz Says:

    Adi Says:
    Comment #70 October 28th, 2021 at 2:02 pm

    “Steven Weinberg “I think Jews only began their great contributions to civilization when they freed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.” (deep respect for this answer)”

    ‘I do not have deep respect for this answer, which I find to be narrow in both scope and perspective, and also historically suspect. Perhaps this statement is defensible if we limited our purview to the Jewish contribution to science during the last century (a period when most Jews were non-affiliated), although some Orthodox Nobel prize winners and notable mathematicians might disagree. ‘

    It’s even more incredible. Weinberg’s comment was not regarding contributions to science.
    I asked him to explain the fact that Jews give charity way beyond their numbers.
    Here is what I said.

    “Second, you seem to feel that nothing positive has come from religion.
    Jews comprise less than two percent of the American population, but the Jewish Federation is the
    third largest charity in the country. My explanation is that Jews have been molded by the Torah
    that made charity a moral and religious obligation.
    In Jewish tradition, not giving charity is considered unjust (hence the word Tzedakah, justice!)
    What is your take on that?
    And do you consider it a moral obligation to give charity?
    Once again, I am truly honored to “speak” with you!
    To this the Professor responded…
    “As to the second question? I think Jew only began their great contributions to civilization when they feed themselves from obsession with Talmud and Torah.”

    This is an incredible comment! As if to say the Jews only began giving charity in modern times. In fact the Jews became charitable due to their “obsession” with the Talmud over 2000 years! Even non religious Jews remain influenced by the Torah / Talmud’s “obsession” with charity and acts of kindness.

  72. mjgeddes Says:

    Excellent recent podcast by Sean Carroll , Mindscape 169 | C. Thi Nguyen
    on Games, Art, Values, and Agency.

    Around the beginning of 2021 , I finally cracked AGI, consciousness and ontology (metaphysics) to my satisfaction, and I then seriously turned to the question of AI alignment, values , sociology, religion and meaning of life, anticipating that my undeniable genius would be equal to the task yet again 😀

    That Mindscape episode by Carroll may have finally put me over the top, crystallizing a number of my earlier intuitions.

    Basically, I think there’s a group of related domains here that I’ll list:

    Linguistics
    Game Theory & Axiology
    Arts

    Now superficially, they seem to be different domains. But I think they’re actually pretty much branches of the same subject! I think all these areas are about *parsing* the motivational system. The crucial insight is that natural language, games and the arts are all methods of communicating mental states.

    When we treat ethical systems as a “game”, we see that religions are simply an extreme version of it, as Thi Nguyen points out on the ‘Mindscape’ podcast and in his book. The ‘game’ being played by religion is simply too inflexible, but it’s the same broad *type* of game playing as any other type of ethical system.

    Essentially, I think meaning is coming from the general property of complex system that can be called ‘Open-Endedness’, which is in some sense, the ‘dual’ of Optimization. Whereas optimization is about *exploitation*, open-endedness is about *exploration*. All that is ‘Good’, I think, basically traces back to the trait of ‘Curiosity’, and the system properties of Open-endedness.

    Now in terms of AI Alignment, I think this basically translates to multi-agent systems that are engaged in trade-offs for exploration. Rather than treating reward functions as black boxes, the reward functions need to evolve, such that some parts of the reward function can modify other parts. It all comes down to open-endedness. And all this is *parsed* via the languages of games and art.

  73. Sam Says:

    (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:
    Comment #68

    “… But it did invent the fundamental dignity of every human being.
And that remains the only basis for the importance of every human being. …”

    You are making two extraordinary claims without sufficient evidence:

    A: That Judaism invented the idea that all human life is important and deserving of dignity and respect. This is a historical fact that may be true or false. Bringing a counter-example from the Ancient Greeks doesn’t prove Judaism was the only one to come up with the idea. But we do have many examples of Ancient Judaism not considering all humans as equally deserving of life and other human rights.

    B: That were it not for Judaism, no one else would have come up with the idea by now. Humanity has certainly been able to come up with its own ideas about human rights without the help of Ancient Judaism. We have managed to invent a ban on slavery despite the Torah’s recommendation not to free foreign slaves. And we have managed to give homosexuals rights to life – despite the recommendation from Ancient Judaism that they be put to death. I don’t believe that no one would have had the idea to extend the same human rights to disabled people without Judaism.

    I call an “explanation” apologetic if it’s trying to retrofit modern values in an ancient text that historically had a different meaning. There’s value in that, as a way to allow people to maintain their heritage while adapting it and improving it to make it relevant. It’s certainly much better than sticking to the literal ancient interpretation. But you can’t use modern reinterpretations to make factual claims about history.

  74. Aso Says:

    Rabbi Katz,

    The idea of human beings in the image of God is not exclusive to Judaism. The ancients texts of Hinduism (Vedas) also taught that human beings have souls. God is everywhere and inside each living being, and there is oneness in all existence.
    Does not that give dignity to each human being?

    Please look at other religions (Buddhism for example) with an open mind. You would be surprised to know that the spiritual quest of man did not begin or end with Torah.

  75. Patrick Dennis Says:

    Matt #43, thanks for your comment, which immediately took me back to the mathematician Jacob Bronowski’s book & TV Series, “The Ascent of Man.” I suppose at that moment in my 20’s, I was “looking for something,” but for whatever reason, it had a profound effect on my thinking thereafter. His explication, in my simultaneously vivid and misty recollection, was entirely, almost eerily consistent with yours.

  76. Matt Says:

    @ Set theorist #44: Point very well taken. I totally agree that the symbology of religion, the psychological influences on us subconsciously of ritual and community, etc should all be preserved. I personally think that the ultimate point of contact and cross-polination for science and religion will be when we understand what is truly going on there and can benefit society.

    What I suppose I meant by coaxing away from the mysticism is coaxing away from the “just so stories” side of things. Accepting a too-literal interpretation of stories that are almost certainly better understood metaphorically. Allowing room for other too-literal science-minded folks to approach the subject matter more on the terms of the applicable value of the lessons contained in the parables than on insisting on the literal truth of fantastical and unprovable claims.

    @ Doug #47: hahaha – great call out 😀 Props to my fellow non-red, non-blue, totally-frustrated US voter plurality members. Shame on me for walking right past us all in making a point.

    @ Rabbi Moshe #49: deeply honored by your reply. I totally agree with you. I would add: perhaps science merely does not *yet* have anything to teach us about the origins of morality, because they haven’t figured it out. I’m holding out hope that we humans get there, someday.

    @ John T #50: “Dignity” and “morality” suffer from being as unexplored and under-characterized as “life” and “gravity” once were, scientifically. I don’t think they’re fundamentally excluded from becoming the business of science. It’s just going to take a whole lot of investigation, and time.

    @ Gerard #54: It seems to me that if we’re worried about AGI exterminating humanity, it’s in our interests to start getting really objective about “worst.” Or the robot will. I also imagine an ancient Greek asking Aristotle “what can science ever hope to tell us about the heavens, or about our own minds?” Are you sure that’s not just an analog to your question and our present abilities?

    @ Gerard #64: Nor can we know the position or velocity of a particle until we observe it. Perhaps the way to objectively understand suffering is to ask. (with apologies to Scott for ham-fisting quantum mechanics, I’m sure)

  77. Moshe Katz Says:

    Sam Says:
    Comment #73 October 29th, 2021 at 1:03 am
    (Rabbi) Moshe Katz Says:
    Comment #68

    You are making two extraordinary claims without sufficient evidence:

    “A: That Judaism invented the idea that all human life is important and deserving of dignity and respect. This is a historical fact that may be true or false. Bringing a counter-example from the Ancient Greeks doesn’t prove Judaism was the only one to come up with the idea. But we do have many examples of Ancient Judaism not considering all humans as equally deserving of life and other human rights.”

    Ancient Greece is not just an example of a particular society. It was the center of civilization, as was Rome that followed. Rome also lacked this concept, which is obvious to anyone who knows what took place in the Colosseum.
    Until Christianity came along it was natural to watch people torn apart for entertainment!

    “That were it not for Judaism, no one else would have come up with the idea by now. Humanity has certainly been able to come up with its own ideas about human rights without the help of Ancient Judaism. We have managed to invent a ban on slavery despite the Torah’s recommendation not to free foreign slaves. And we have managed to give homosexuals rights to life – despite the recommendation from Ancient Judaism that they be put to death. I don’t believe that no one would have had the idea to extend the same human rights to disabled people without Judaism.”

    The examples that you give did have the help of Ancient Judaism. Judaism shaped the Western world and it became taken for granted that there was sanctity to human life.
    They may have extended it beyond the parameters of the Torah , but the foundation was
    “In His Image, God created him.”
    Aristotle called a slave an “animated tool”. Could Professor Weinberg have changed his mind? Do you find his basis for human importance compelling. Because we “invent our importance?
    I come back to the same point. No one would have come up for the case for human rights, without the Torah, because there is no case.
    Another Nobel Prize winning physicist, James Watson recognized this and was honest.
    There is no sanctity to human life. But all societies outlaw murder as a “social contract”.
    A social contract, leaving aside whether it is binding on those who don’t “sign it”, or whether it works, is not morality, its practicality.

  78. Gerard Says:

    Matt #76

    > It seems to me that if we’re worried about AGI exterminating humanity, it’s in our interests to start getting really objective about “worst.” Or the robot will.

    I only used that as an example to show that pure rationality is insufficient for making moral judgements, I never said I was worried about it, for a variety of reasons, one of which being that I’m far from convinced it would be a bad thing.

    > I also imagine an ancient Greek asking Aristotle “what can science ever hope to tell us about the heavens, or about our own minds?” Are you sure that’s not just an analog to your question and our present abilities?

    I actually think that further supports my case. Science doesn’t seem any closer to being able to answer questions like “what is consciousness” or “why is there something rather than nothing” than Aristotle was. If you haven’t made any progress on questions you want to answer in 2300 years, maybe it’s time to reconsider your approach.

    > Perhaps the way to objectively understand suffering is to ask.

    I’m sure you can coax GPT-3 into telling you it’s in horrible pain, but I’d bet anything no one will ever prove that any algorithm has conscious experiences (at least in any way that differs from those of other inanimate objects that are clearly incapable of complaining).

    > Nor can we know the position or velocity of a particle until we observe it.

    But you can observe such quantities, you can’t observe suffering, you can only make inferences about it (which may or may not be correct) based on observed behavior.

  79. ultimaniacy Says:

    Moshe Katz #77:

    “Ancient Greece is not just an example of a particular society. It was the center of civilization, as was Rome that followed.”

    What do you mean by “the centre of civilization”, and what does it have to do with Sam’s point?

  80. Matt Says:

    @ Gerard #78:

    “I only used that as an example to show that pure rationality is insufficient for making moral judgements”

    I totally agree with this. But I think we’re going in two different directions from here. I think (?) you’re concluding “thus, a purely rational machine is not capable of morality” – but I am *totally* reading between the lines here so please let me know if I’m misunderstanding you. The direction I’m going in is “thus, there is some aspect of being a human, mind and body, that not only yields rationality but morality as well. It is unclear if the physical construction and software design for AGI will result in similar phenomena. Or how separable the two are, at all. Every rational being we know of has also fallen on a wide spectrum of morality, too.”

    “I’m far from convinced it would be a bad thing.”

    😳😬 Dude, are you team humans, or no? I’m going to my nephew’s fourth birthday today. I’ll confess to harboring gleefully murderous thoughts about the occasional other human, but if anyone’s worth saving humanity for, it’s that kid. Do you have someone like that?

    “If you haven’t made any progress on questions you want to answer in 2300 years, maybe it’s time to reconsider your approach.”

    We only just got reusable rocketry and space travel for the layperson (more or less, but we’ll get there). I’m glad we didn’t punt on that one. Some problems are 2300-years hard, I suppose. Do you think some might be 10,000? 100,000?

    “I’d bet anything no one will ever prove that any algorithm has conscious experiences (at least in any way that differs from those of other inanimate objects that are clearly incapable of complaining).”

    Indeed. I’d take that bet too. But on the other hand, neither of us can prove that each other aren’t having conscious experiences either, yet here we are doing this textbox-at-one-another thing. I’d offer to meet up and buy you a beer to prove I’m not a GPT3 instance, at least, but would it prove I’m subjectively experiencing consciousness? Does it matter? Seems to me we’re doing ok regardless.

    “But you can observe such quantities, you can’t observe suffering, you can only make inferences about it (which may or may not be correct) based on observed behavior.”

    I respectfully disagree. Pain scales are a thing. They are weak sauce , science-wise, compared to tools like sphygmomanometers, but they’re science. They’re objective enough for applicability in medical treatment, as super subjective as they might be. There’s maybe something here about how “honesty” interacts conceptually with “subjectivity” and “symbols” to produce “objectivity.” There’s also plenty of science that’s been done within large bands of measurement error that still can yield statistically significant information given a sufficiently large difference or change in measurement. We have to get started on this consciousness measuring thing somewhere, right?

  81. Jay Jopus Says:

    I understand there are people who strongly doubt the existence of G-d, but most atheists are at heart really agnostics. If I take a random number that is approximately 10^2500 for example, then the chance it will be prime is vanishingly small. So small as to actually be non-existent for all reasonable intents and purposes. But that isn’t to say that there are prime numbers of this magnitude, buried somewhere like figurative needles in an equally figurative haystack. The point is, miracles do occur – that’s kind of the point in belief really. Not to expect miracles as such, but to accept there are unlikely things which are nevertheless true, and to accept them requires no dogma or historical artefacts or relics or holy remains or anything of this kind. Belief is a personal matter based on faith and conscience primarily, though logically something proceeds from a super-being or creator more readily than it proceeds from nothing at all.

  82. Gerard Says:

    Matt #80

    Regarding AGI, again that example was brought up in the context of a discussion about whether science could be a sufficient basis for morality or not. My position on that question is: no.

    It wasn’t my intent to take any particular positions on AGI and as for “thus, a purely rational machine is not capable of morality”, I’m not even sure how to assign meaning to such a statement.

    Beyond that, and assuming I’m reading you correctly (perhaps there is a typo in your comment), you seem to be accepting that we will never be able to refute solipsism while simultaneously holding out hope for a scientific theory of consciousness. But surely one of the most basic questions we would expect such a theory to answer would be “are there multiple conscious beings or not?”.

  83. Gadi Says:

    All religions are based on the premise that the God who created the world actually cares about human beings and wants them to know he created the world (usually with additional arbitrary rules the religion’s creators saw fit to insert). So implicit in this assumption is that the best way to convince us that someone created this world is tales coming from people centuries ago of miracles. This assumption is actually pretty easy to refute.

    If God created the world, he knows exactly how it works, and has the source-code, or algorithm running it. All he had to do to convince me to join his religion is to come here with the source code, we’ll verify it matches all known physical predictions, unifies QFT with gravity in mathematically consistent way, possibly even explain much more things. Physicists are actually in the best possible spot to be convinced of a religion by the real God, except He is mysteriously silent. This silence is, in my opinion, the best proof of his indifference at best and non-existence at worst. However, if all of this were to happen, I’ll be pretty easily convinced of God.

  84. Lilac Says:

    Gadi #83

    I’ll be sure to ponder this. Now we know all it takes to convince Gadi is a little bit of maths, nothing miraculous about that!

  85. Matt Says:

    @ Gerard #81

    Duly noted that we’re diverging from the main point by me making too much of the AGI examples. My apologies. To the main matter: *could* science *ever* produce a sufficient basis for morality? It sounds like your claim is not just about now, but about ever?

    “Beyond that, and assuming I’m reading you correctly (perhaps there is a typo in your comment), you seem to be accepting that we will never be able to refute solipsism while simultaneously holding out hope for a scientific theory of consciousness. But surely one of the most basic questions we would expect such a theory to answer would be “are there multiple conscious beings or not?”.”

    You are reading me correctly 😄 so at least that makes one of us! I resolve the apparent contradiction as: we will someday understand enough, at a deep enough level, to have a working theory of consciousness from which we can extrapolate useful moral systems, while simultaneously not having observable physical evidence, just mathematics and models that hold up extremely well under general conditions. Something like what atomic theory has been for us over the past several decades; not a unified theory of everything, but sufficient for harnessing the power of atomic energy.

    @ Gadi #83

    We’re capable today of creating machine learning systems that we can’t perfectly explain. How can we be sure that a creator of a universe, however deterministic, can’t still be surprised and delighted by the particular emergent possibilities that arise? (Let alone a universe that contains “true free will?”) I think you’ve let religion smuggle omniscience into your argument as one of your assumptions about creators.

    Perhaps the point of this whole exercise is exactly the opposite: find out what happens, and don’t mess with it till it’s all done? But that sounds like science. 😉

  86. Moshe Katz Says:

    Gadi Says:
    Comment #83

    “If God created the world, he knows exactly how it works, and has the source-code, or algorithm running it. All he had to do to convince me to join his religion is to come here with the source code, we’ll verify it matches all known physical predictions, unifies QFT with gravity in mathematically consistent way, possibly even explain much more things. Physicists are actually in the best possible spot to be convinced of a religion by the real God, except He is mysteriously silent”

    … Thank you Gadi for helping me clarify this point in my mind!
    God actually did just that!
    Stephen Hawking has an entire chapter in “Grand Design” where he lists the incredible “fine tuning” of the universe. (I know, Professor Weinberg doesn’t agree with that, but Hawking was no slouch either). He actually says that for all this to happen by “accident” seems impossible, even using the word “miracle”!
    Hawking’s solution (shared by Steven) is “multiverse”. In one universe, it would be impossible by accident. But if there are billions of universes, then it is plausible that one fine tuned universe, like ours happened.
    Whether “multiverse” is likely, compelling, unscientific (as argued by some illustrious physicists since it can not be proven or disproven) or “a leap of faith” as argued by others”, similar to religious belief, in order to avoid the evidence for a Creator, is beyond my scientific pay scale. And life is too short to try to figure it out.
    So I will continue living my life with the fact that, as Gadi suggested, God , as described by Hawkins, gave us the evidence, and the only alternative is mulitiverse.
    That is a pretty good rational basis for being a rabbi.
    As for Gadi’s suggestion that scientists are the best equipped to “weigh the evidence”?
    Weinberg and Hawking were both brilliant and human and both made “doing away for the need of a Creator” a top priority in their lives.
    And don’t think that they are objective enough to decide whether the multiverse is scientifically grounded, or a great way to avoid the “evidence” provided by the Creator!

  87. Gadi Says:

    The existence of an arbitrary God (with no properties) is irrefutable. You simply have no way of distinguishing a universe with such a god from a universe without.
    The existence of a God who cares but intentionally avoids interaction is also irrefutable, because of the same reason. That’s like what Matt said, a god who is simply observing.

    However, most religions claim a God who both cares, AND he cares that you know about him. They claim a God who seeks to prove his Godhood. They also claim a god which can communicate with people. That is actually refutable. Such a God, like I said, actually has the tools to prove his Godhood.

    I’ll provide an analogy. If someone claimed he has an algorithm for p=np, but he withholds proving it or using it for unknown reasons, it could be possible, if still unbelievable.

    If that same person said that not only does he have such an algorithm, but that he wants everyone to acknowledge and recognize him for his accomplishment, but then he would refuse to show his algorithm or even to provide zero knowledge proof of his ability to solve np compete problems, well at that point I would immediately call out his bluff: he’s either lying about his motives or his capabilities. He either doesn’t care enough about recognition or doesn’t have the algorithm he claims.

  88. Scott Says:

    I was trying to limit my contribution to this thread to some mostly tangential remarks—with a major conference deadline approaching, I knew I wouldn’t have time for another science/religion food fight! Rabbi Katz, however, has implored me to say what I think about the main topics under discussion.

    Very well then: it probably won’t surprise any regular reader here that my position on these matters is closer to Steve Weinberg’s than to Rabbi Katz’s. I think the world as revealed by science is dramatically, importantly different from the world as portrayed in the Torah, or in the scriptures of any other religion. The world as revealed by science started 13.7 billion years ago with interacting quantum fields on a rapidly expanding pseudo-Riemannian spacetime manifold. Eventually, via the mechanism of Darwinian natural selection, these quantum fields gave rise to complex structures that we call life and intelligence … on the surface of what, as far as we know today, might be an otherwise unremarkable backwater planet on the outskirts of an unremarkable backwater galaxy.

    The universe as revealed by science might or might not have a divine purpose—but if it does, one of the greatest understatements of all time is that it’s been kept pretty well-hidden. Wherever science looks, it finds mechanism, the working out of simple mathematical rules, together with apparently chance events within the framework of those rules. If the rules were set in motion by a divine Creator, then it seems hard to infer anything about the motives of that Creator, beyond that He or She really, really likes complex numbers, linear algebra, and Lie groups.

    Certainly, if one believes in a divine purpose of the universe that ascribes some special role to the Jews, then one needs to explain why not only was that purpose insufficient to stop the Holocaust, it couldn’t even exempt from the gas chambers the most devout, God-fearing Jews. Was God waiting for a worse calamity to intervene on His chosen people’s behalf? Consider a world where He won’t intervene, period: how would that world look any different from this one?

    And yes, I know, I know, it’s all part of the Mysterious Divine Plan. A few years after the Holocaust, after all, we Jews did get Eretz Yisrael back. And while Steve Weinberg, or I, might think most of the credit for that achievement goes to the secular Zionists, pursuing a mostly-secular project that before the Holocaust the Orthodox mostly opposed, no doubt Adonai Eloheinu was working His will through David Ben-Gurion and all the other secular Zionists as vessels.

    The trouble is, once you’ve retreated to the Mysterious Divine Plan, you’ve lost any argument whatsoever for me, for example, or for Weinberg, to don tefillin or abstain from electricity on Shabbat or swing chickens over our heads or any of the other stuff. After all, who’s to say that the Mysterious Divine Plan doesn’t involve me doing exactly what I’m doing right now, living my recognizably-Jewish yet largely-assimilated life?

    Speaking of which: it’s true that, like Rabbi Katz and unlike Steve, I find Jewish traditions to be a meaningful piece of my life, a thread to the extremely remote past that I’d like to pass on to my children (which is why, for example, we happily belong to a Conservative synagogue). If it’s superstition, then it’s superstition that for thousands for years shaped the entire world from which I emerged, shaped even why my ancestors married each other so as to produce someone like me, and that alone means it can’t be cast off as easily as, let’s say, a belief in astrology. On the other hand, I don’t feel like without that tradition I’d lapse into nihilism, go on a murder spree or anything like that. After all, most of my friends seem to do fine without it.

    At some point, though, I ought to address the actual issue that Steve and Rabbi Katz were ostensibly arguing about: namely, whether religion in general or Judaism in particular deserve credit for inventing or promulgating the concept of “the value of every human life.” I admit that I find this a weird thing to focus on. After all, just like an atheist can admire the Sistine Chapel, so an atheist could easily give credit to religion for any praiseworthy moral progress: the atheist would merely add that today can we do better by disentangling those moral ideas from their original religious baggage, just like we’ve learned to disentangle so many of our legal and philosophical and cosmological ideas from their original religious baggage. Where our moral concepts originated is a fascinating question of history, but I see no reason for that to be the main crux of disagreement between Steven Weinberg and an Orthodox rabbi. It feels like a proxy for the bigger question.

    For what it’s worth, though, I do find it plausible that Judaism deserves credit for popularizing to the world the fundamental distinction between might and right—i.e., the notion of the weak, suffering victim who nevertheless has the upper hand morally. At any rate, the Greeks and Romans don’t seem to have had that concept to anything like the same degree, despite such dramatic examples as the trial of Socrates.

    Certainly Nietzsche, in condemning the Jews’ “slave morality,” gave them backhanded credit for that innovation, and so did the Nazis, who borrowed heavily from Nietzsche.

    On the other hand, I thought Steve made a brilliant point that Judaism is in an awkward position here: to whatever extent it successfully popularized the idea of the inherent dignity of every human being, even the poor and downtrodden and weak, it must have done so almost entirely via Christianity—or possibly, to a lesser extent, via Marxism. I.e., it could only have done so via its own heresies. The difficulty of converting to Judaism, and of practicing it observantly, has always put a hard limit on the extent to which its moral precepts could influence the world directly.

    I guess just one parting thought. In comment #49, Rabbi Katz writes: “A scientist has no greater moral insight than a school teacher or, for that matter, a plumber.” While Steve is no longer with us, I believe he’d vehemently agree that studying the fundamental laws of the universe gave him no special insight about morality—or rather, only “insight” of a negative character, namely, that morality can’t be founded on those fundamental laws, so it had better be founded on some other basis, like what’s most likely to cause individuals and societies to flourish and be happy or whatever. I feel certain that Steve, as his co-irreligionist Richard Dawkins loves to do, would then turn the question around, and ask why we expect the priest, rabbi, or imam to have greater moral insight than the schoolteacher or the plumber.

  89. mjgeddes Says:

    I’d say that religion (at least in its theological aspects) is mythology; it’s story-telling, a form of narrative or literature. Particular ethical systems are likely “games” that we play, decision makers interacting via a constructed set of rules (game theory). So no, morality is definitely not to be found in fundamental laws of nature.

    That said though, perhaps some kind of quasi-objective principles of meta-ethics is still a viable possibility via *complex systems theory*. Minds are complex systems, and study of complex systems is still in its infancy. That some partially objective meta-ethics might emerge from this can’t be ruled out.

    My strong intuition here is that there *are* such principles, the clue here being the exploitation vs exploration trade-off in machine learning. I suspect there’s some kind of general principles of *open-endedness* in complex systems from which a core set of positive values “naturally” emerges. Provided a complex system that’s an intelligent agent has in addition to intelligence the right general properties of “open-endedness”, this alone *might* be enough for that agent to be “friendly”, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

    The most popular psychological theory of core values seems to be Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Moral Foundations’ theory, which isn’t that convincing.

    My own current theory is that there’s something’s like “Cognitive Temperature Scales” which are performing a balancing act between order and chaos , which very much has a Hindu flavour to it!

    I can see two main ‘cognitive scales’, one for personal values , the other for interpersonal values. This gives 4 main groups of values.

    Personal: Curiosity (‘rationalist’ values)—Creativity (‘artistic’ values)
    Interpersonal: Justice (‘martial’ values)—Harmony (‘hippie’ values: Love&Peace)

    I’d say that religious impulses are social emotions (the interpersonal values), a desire to be part of a wider system, where perhaps the “cognitive temperature” has been dialed up too far, and the personal values damped down.

    But the general Hindu notion of a balancing between Order and Chaos may not be far from the truth.

  90. ultimaniacy Says:

    Moshe Katz #77:

    “The examples that you give did have the help of Ancient Judaism. Judaism shaped the Western world and it became taken for granted that there was sanctity to human life.
    They may have extended it beyond the parameters of the Torah , but the foundation was
    “In His Image, God created him.””

    “They may have extended it beyond the parameters of the Torah” — thank you for so clearly verbalizing the “heads I win, tails you lose” logic that you are using here. If you find something in Ancient Greek philosophy that modern readers find abhorrent, that proves you can’t find a good basis for morality without the Torah. But if you find something in the Torah that modern readers find equally abhorrent, that just further proves how great the Torah is, that they’ve managed to take ideas from the Torah and derive from them a system even more moral than is actually allowed by the Torah itself. Writing the two arguments out side-by-side, it sounds like something out of a Monty Python movie, but this is the kind of mental gymnastics that you have to perform to pretend that the Torah is still a viable basis for morality in the modern world.

    “Aristotle called a slave an ‘animated tool’.”

    That he does, but it should be noted that in so doing, he was actually trying to present a middle-ground viewpoint between two factions within Ancient Greek society. He says when introducing the topic of slavery in the Politics:

    “For some are of opinion that the rule of a master is a science, and that the management of a household, and the mastership of slaves, and the political and royal rule, as I was saying at the outset, are all the same. Others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust.”

    Which means that in Aristotle’s time, some of the Ancient Greeks had already come to the conclusion that every human had a natural right to freedom, without needing the Torah or monotheistic religion.

  91. Moshe Katz Says:

    ultimaniacy Says:
    Comment #90 November 4th, 2021 at 9:15 pm
    Moshe Katz #77:

    “Aristotle called a slave an ‘animated tool’.”

    ‘That he does, but it should be noted that in so doing, he was actually trying to present a middle-ground viewpoint between two factions within Ancient Greek society. He says when introducing the topic of slavery in the Politics:

    “For some are of opinion that the rule of a master is a science, and that the management of a household, and the mastership of slaves, and the political and royal rule, as I was saying at the outset, are all the same. Others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust.”

    Which means that in Aristotle’s time, some of the Ancient Greeks had already come to the conclusion that every human had a natural right to freedom, without needing the Torah or monotheistic religion.”

    The primary example that I offered of the lack of a concept of human dignity and sanctity of life, was the practice in Ancient Greece of leaving “non perfect” children on a mountain to die. Aristotle supported this practice. I am not “finding a statement in Greek philosophy” that I find morally repugnant. It was a common practice , sanctioned by Plato as well.
    What changed it was the teaching of the Torah that man is created in the Image of God.
    I can’t prove that, absent the Torah’s teaching, or we reject it, that no one could offer a different basis for sanctity of human life, but I don’t see and have never seen, a compelling basis that would change the world.
    In your quote of Aristotle regarding slavery?
    First I don’t know if he was presenting “two factions” I don’t know how common the feeling that man has a natural right to freedom or dignity.
    And that argument is not compelling. Some think that man does and some don’t think so.
    What is the source of this natural right?
    I invite you to finish the sentence.
    “Even if there is no God and we are here by accident, are specks on a speck in the universe,
    never the less, human beings, among all other creatures, have a unique and compelling natural right to freedom and dignity because… ?????

  92. Daniel Davis Says:

    With the reference to “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman”, I went down a rabbit hole and found myself here.
    https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5020-1
    I highly recommend the American Institute of Physics Oral History project.

  93. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Five million years of hominid bipedal evolution impacts individual and social behavior. Man tends to hierarchical tribes that sometimes engage in violent conflicts with other tribes over resources of one type or the other. A distinctive tribe in the modern world is that of the Jewish people who maintain distinct cultural traditions and have a matrilineal genetic component for formal membership. In the western world, by many measures, it is the most successful tribe.

    The last study I saw suggested the Ashkenazis are descendants of a handful of Northern European women and men from the Middle East that lived about 2000 years ago (evaluation of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes respectively). At the time of the Middle Ages there may have been a chokepoint on the order of hundreds of individuals that are the ancestors of the modern Ashkenazi. Membership through matrilineal lineage is interesting because the X chromosome is known to be the location of very important genes that impact human behavior. The Ashkenazi gene set does provide aptitude for success in modern western society and the matrilineal requirement in and of itself limits population.

    My view, that I respectfully believe closer to Dr Aaronson’s, is that the inordinate impact of Judaism, on the Western intellectual tradition was more from primarily secular individuals with high aptitude gene sets working in the capitals of Europe rather than Talmudic scholars interpreting sacred texts.

    I respect anyone’s beliefs in regards to religion and God but personally skeptical that they are self evident general truths that transcend culture. In the case of some future circumstances it may be the case that some other gene set provides a survival advantage or some other intellectual tradition is advantageous. I prefer the way it almost is now in the West with respect for intellectual diversity and beliefs but have no doubt this could be transitory.

    I suppose that sufficiently advanced genetic engineering would technically allow for the end of human tribalism and provide generally for individuals with specific physical and behavioral traits as required. As an example humans could be engineered with mitochondrial and X chromosome DNA consistent with descent from that small founder population of Northern European women and Middle Eastern men. Likely however it will just be used as another tool to be used in the tribal conflict of the day until the deep genetic legacy of five million years of human evolution can be overwritten but the completely engineered result will be something different than man.

  94. ultimaniacy Says:

    Moshe Katz #91:

    “I am not ‘finding a statement in Greek philosophy’ that I find morally repugnant. It was a common practice , sanctioned by Plato as well.”

    Your use of quotation marks implies that I used the phrase “find[ing] a statement”, but I actually used the much more general phrase “finding *something*”. Regardless, the passages that Sam (Comment #73) mentioned in the Torah are presumably also sanctioning common practices of the time and place, so this can’t actually be the distinction. It’s possible (for all I know) that these practices were not standard before being commanded in the Torah, but if true, then clearly that only weakens the argument for the Torah as a basis for morality.

    “What changed it was the teaching of the Torah that man is created in the Image of God.”

    You keep asserting this with no explanation. Who changed it, when, and how do you know they were persuaded by the Torah? If you don’t have answers to these questions, then your assertion that Torah teachings caused it is nothing more than self-congratulatory conjecture.

    “I invite you to finish the sentence.
    “Even if there is no God and we are here by accident, are specks on a speck in the universe,
    never the less, human beings, among all other creatures, have a unique and compelling natural right to freedom and dignity because… ?????”

    I maintain that the question is backwards. A creator’s importance is judged by their creations, not the other way around. This is especially true if the creator is so remote and mysterious that nothing can be definitively said about them beyond what they have created (actually, not even that). The importance of humanity (if there is any) may prove the importance of God, but not the reverse.

  95. Moshe Katz Says:

    ultimaniacy Says:
    Comment #94 November 6th, 2021 at 8:54 pm
    Moshe Katz #91:

    “I maintain that the question is backwards. A creator’s importance is judged by their creations, not the other way around. This is especially true if the creator is so remote and mysterious that nothing can be definitively said about them beyond what they have created (actually, not even that). The importance of humanity (if there is any) may prove the importance of God, but not the reverse.”
    To wrap up.
    I accept the Jewish teachings that tell us that the special status of human beings is a result of being created in the Image of God. That is why I consider myself and every human being as deserving respect and dignity.
    You don’t accept that, which is fine. I am not trying to change your mind on that.
    But bottom line is, I have a basis for how I see the special status of human beings.
    You reject my basis and I just ask you, in absence of my basis, to articulate why you )do you?) believe that human beings are special?
    Why is it that if I kill a cute poodle I am given a fine and maybe a short prison sentence, but if I kill a human being, I may be sentenced to prison for life?

  96. ultimaniacy Says:

    Moshe Katz #95:

    “But bottom line is, I have a basis for how I see the special status of human beings.”

    I get off the train here. I don’t think that you have such a basis at all. I think you’ve only demonstrated that you don’t have a basis for how you see the special status of God.

    Since you’ve twice now ignored my original explanation for this point, let me try reaching the same conclusion from a different starting point. I take it as self-evident that, the more I know about any given thing, the more confidently I can assess its value. How much do we know with confidence about humans? Given that all of us are experiencing being human 24/7 our entire lives, I think it’s fair to say we know more about them than anything else. How much do we know with confidence about images of God? Nothing whatsoever. So, if I can’t be sure about the value of human life, then there’s no way I can even begin to guess at the value of an image of God. If you established a basis for the importance of human life that was based on secular arguments, then you could use that to estimate the value of images of God, assuming that humans really are made in God’s image. But if your only basis for respecting human life is that “humans are made in the image of God”, that’s just another way of saying you have no basis.

  97. Andrei Says:

    Moshe Katz,

    “Why is it that if I kill a cute poodle I am given a fine and maybe a short prison sentence, but if I kill a human being, I may be sentenced to prison for life?”

    Easy. Just like all other animals, humans are programmed to survive. The reason is simple. Any individual that lacks the “survival gene” will most likely fail to pass his genes to the next generation.

    In order to survive you cannot let other people kill you, so you agree to impose harsh laws against killing.

    People also dislike their animals being killed or their property being stolen, but those acts are less important for the ability of the victim to pass his genes to the next generation so they are punished less.

  98. Job Says:

    I accept the Jewish teachings that tell us that the special status of human beings is a result of being created in the Image of God. That is why I consider myself and every human being as deserving respect and dignity.
    You don’t accept that, which is fine. I am not trying to change your mind on that.
    But bottom line is, I have a basis for how I see the special status of human beings.
    You reject my basis and I just ask you, in absence of my basis, to articulate why you )do you?) believe that human beings are special?

    I think I can paraphrase this in a useful way.

    I accept the belief that the Earth is at the center of the universe.
    I have a basis for why the Earth is special.

    You reject my basis, and I ask you to articulate why you (do you?) believe that the Earth is special?

    The Earth is special (to us, humans) independently of whether it is at the center of the universe.
    To me, the Earth is special because it’s home.

    Why would I attempt to rationalize it further? I recognize it as a biased statement.
    I wouldn’t expect to reach a consensus when arguing over this with aliens, for example.
    It would be absurd and pointless. I’m sure they would disagree (mere satellites that they are).

    Similarly, humans are special (to us, humans) independently of any divine association.
    Ironically, it sounds like you disagree. Humans are not special to you in the absence of god?

  99. JimV Says:

    Asked and answered, over and over.

    If the poodles were in charge, killing a poodle would be a capital offense, and killing humans a misdemeanor. Think about evolution and you might glimpse why that is. It all makes sense if you examine the evidence and do the math.

  100. STEM Caveman Says:

    @Set Theorist #44

    > mysticism is an indispensable part of religion, similar to the way that set theory is an indispensable part of mathematics

    It would be hard to argue against the statement that set theory IS mysticism, or (in its syntactic incarnation) a formally consistent theory of mythical objects, like working out the physics of a world with telepathic unicorns and invisible fairies. What is puzzling is what you could mean by this being indispensable. If you take mathematics to be ultimately a theory for predicting the results of finite computations (e.g., a body of “ForAll n, P(n)” statements and implications between them) with some user friendly interfaces like “geometry” and “analysis” to make it not seem quite so stark, at what point is anything like set theory necessarily to the story? The enterprise of precisely defining, founding and building a formally coherent mathematics language could have gone in many different directions and it’s only historic accident that set theory was around as “the” formalism in use when that took off. It could have been categories, or a programming language, or types, or nothing in particular, playing the same role.

  101. Moshe Katz Says:

    Andrei Says:
    Comment #97 November 10th, 2021 at 12:20 am
    Moshe Katz,

    “Why is it that if I kill a cute poodle I am given a fine and maybe a short prison sentence, but if I kill a human being, I may be sentenced to prison for life?”

    “Easy. Just like all other animals, humans are programmed to survive. The reason is simple. Any individual that lacks the “survival gene” will most likely fail to pass his genes to the next generation.

    In order to survive you cannot let other people kill you, so you agree to impose harsh laws against killing.”

    JimV Says:
    Comment #99 November 13th, 2021 at 11:35 am
    Asked and answered, over and over.

    “If the poodles were in charge, killing a poodle would be a capital offense, and killing humans a misdemeanor. Think about evolution and you might glimpse why that is. It all makes sense if you examine the evidence and do the math.”

    MK Both Andrei and Jim are saying that we’re in charge, and want to survive so we may laws to protect ourselves. If the poodles were in charge, it would be different.
    This is basically a “social contract”, not to kill each other so that we can survive.
    So killing a human is not inherently different than killing a poodle, it is not a moral offense.
    Its just a violation of the social contract.

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