Monday, January 25, 2010

The Aging Atheist

[Boaz Yakin]

I personally have a theory about the average human life. I believe that it can basically be divided into four segments corresponding approximately with the four season.

Birth to age 20 - Childhood, spring.
Age 20 to age 40 - Youth, summer.
Age 40 to age 60 - Middle age, fall.
Age 60 to age 80 - Old age, winter.

I have an impression that atheism is most attractive to the person in his youth. He can lead a life of debauchery, feel good, look good and suffer few consequences.

What happens however to the aging atheist - let's say once he hits forty? Can this be a crisis?

Boaz Yakin is a 43 year old movie director and writer. He is a secular American Jew whose parents are Israeli. He attended an Orthodox elementary school. I have the impression that his attitude to Judaism is hostile, based on the movie A Price Above Rubies which he wrote and directed. I would assume he is an atheist.

Recently he wrote and directed another movie, Death in Love. In the beginning of the movie (from about 2:00 to 4:30 marks) he has one of the main characters, played by Josh Lucas, deliver a little speech about how horrible it is to turn 40, about how ones appearance changes, how he sees a stranger in the mirror, how women no longer can give him pleasure and how living just seems pointless but he is too cowardly to take his own life. Slightly later (5:52 mark), Lucas' character continues to explain that as one ages he "loses everything and gains nothing except the knowledge that you have lost everything gained nothing".

I wonder if Mr Yakin is expressing some of his own feelings.

It's a shame. It really doesn't have to be this way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When Things Don't Add Up

Exodus 12:40 states “The habitation of the Children of Israel during which they dwelled in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.” [This verse will be publicly read in Orthodox synagogues this coming Saturday morning.]

This verse clearly contradicts Exodus 6:18-20 which states that Kohath lived 133 years and Amram his son lived 137 years. Kohath came to Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:11). Moses, the son of Amram, died at the age of 120 (Deut. 34:7), which was 40 years after the Exodus, making Moses 80 years old at the time of Exodus. Therefore the Egyptian exile could not have lasted more than 350 years. (In fact, according to the Talmudic tradition, it lasted only 210 years.)

This contradiction has been addressed by many Biblical commentaries, from ancient times to the present. I have not yet found an explanation which I, in my ignorance, feel is very plausible.

Needless to say, critics of Judaism have used this verse as proof that the Torah was not written by God, since obviously God would not have made a mistake and the number 430 is apparently a mistake.

I believe, however, such a conclusion is unwarranted.

The evidence in favor of the divine origin of the Torah is overwhelming. Exodus 12:40 is a single verse which I don’t understand. In my opinion, this does not outweigh the evidence in favor Judaism.

This same type of logic is commonly applied in any other area of research. Take for example the discovery of soft tissue in dinosaur bones. This would seem to contradict the well established fact that dinosaurs lived tens of millions of years ago, because soft tissues can never survive that long. However rather than contradict the massive evidence of the age of dinosaurs, scientists must simply accept the fact that somehow in this case soft tissue did survive 70 million years, although we don’t understand how. Only when the preponderance of evidence would favor a much younger age for dinosaurs, something almost inconceivable, would that conclusion be accepted.

By the same token, in regarding Judaism, only when the preponderance of evidence would shift to a human authorship of the Torah, something almost inconceivable, could that conclusion be accepted. In other words, as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Fun a kasha shtorbt man nischt”. “You don’t die from a contradiction.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Questions to a Scientist

Several years ago I exchanged email with Douglas L. Theobald, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of 29 proofs of macroevolution . He was kind enough to answer two questions which I have concerning evolution. I greatly appreciate his patience.

My first question concerned the probability of evolution occurring:

It seems to me that the concept of evolution might be compared to the concept of an illiterate author.

Let's say that someone wanted to publish books and become a great author. But he was totally illiterate. He could not read or write one word; letters looked to him like meaningless scratches on the page.

So he came up with a solution. He would buy a printing press, open a bookstore, start printing and make more copies of whatever sold. At first he just arranged his printing type at random, printed and put the results on the shelves. No one bought anything since it was all gibberish. He threw all these failures into the recycling bin and continued printing. Eventually, purely by chance, one small booklet actually made sense and in fact became a best seller. So he kept printing more copies of it. Occasionally, there would be some typographical error in the printing, purely by chance. A page would be smudged, a line would be missing. Generally these errors would cause the book to be unpurchased and it would be thrown into recycling. However once in a while a typo would add more meaning to a copy of the book - a few interesting new sentences. People would ask for more copies of it. That typo would be then be faithfully reproduced by the illiterate author. Gradually entire new books developed through this process of random typographical errors and customer selection. Eventually, the inventory in the book shop had expanded to include tens of millions of titles including novels, plays, poetry, scientific textbooks, history, biography, huge dictionaries and encyclopedias and so on. In fact, these books were actually far more beautiful and profound than books ever written by any human author. All produced by a totally illiterate author through a process of random printing, typos and customer selection over a very long period of time.

Needless to say most people, including most mathematicians, would be very skeptical about this story of an illiterate author. Even given billions of years and billions of illiterate authors making the attempt it seems to be ridiculously unlikely that it could ever happen. However this is exactly what evolutionists consider to be the origin of life - nature is a mindless engineer, combining molecules at random until some became self reproducing. Then random mutations and natural selection combine together to create all the diversity and complexity we see in life around us.

Dr. Theobald answered me as follows:

Your analogy is, for the most part, sound. However, there are several points to be made. First, just because you think something is astounding has very little relevance to its scientific validity. There are all kinds of things in science that amaze me: particles behave as waves and tunnel through walls, Euclidean geometry does not work in the real world, stars are billions of miles away, invisible radiowaves are carrying messages all around me (and through me) right now, etc. Our amazement is irrelevant; the real question is whether the amazing thing is true or not. Second, your insinuation that "most mathematicians [are] skeptical" of random mutation and natural selection is false. As it turns out, the mathematics of genetics is extremely rigorous and a large field in its own right (and has been for 100 years), and there is no contradiction between what the math says and what biological genomes show. For example, see morphological rates and genetic rates.

As far as the Internet references which Dr. Theobald provides, as I understand them, the first demonstrates that if we measure the rate of change which is observed to occur within species, as a result of selective breeding or environmental pressures, and extrapolate this same rate of change over geological time, we should in fact see evolution progressing far more rapidly than the geological record indicates. In other words, if a breeder can breed a Great Dane from a coyote in 200 years, he should be able to breed an elephant from a coyote in 5,000 years. I think most animal breeders would be highly skeptical of such an assertion.

The second reference indicates that genetic mutations occur sufficiently frequently to account for the transformation of an ape into a human in approximately 6 million years. This seems to assume that all mutations add reproductive value to their recipient (or, in my analogy, they are good typos which add to the marketability of the book), while in reality few if any do. Click here for more detail.

As I understand it, Dr. Theobald is conceding that the evolution is difficult to believe, however, like many other amazing events, it may nevertheless actually have taken place. It should be obvious however that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I claim that I ate breakfast this morning with my wife, little evidence would be required to convince someone. If I claim that I ate breakfast this morning with President Obama, stronger evidence would be needed.

Since evolution allegedly occurred during eons of prehistoric time, the only possible direct evidence of evolution would be the fossil remains of animals in the process of evolving. Therefore I asked Dr. Theobald about the strength of this evidence:

Animals which have only soft body parts, of course, may not be preserved as fossils. Also, terrestrial animals may seldom be fossilized because when they die their bodies lie exposed and are usually quickly destroyed. However marine animals which have bones or shells are often fossilized as they die and their bodies fall to the ocean floor and are covered by sediment. This sediment turns to stone and creates fossils. According to Darwin, we should therefore today have a beautiful record of the gradual transition, in millions of tiny steps, from the earliest vertebrates over 510 million years ago up to modern fish about 200 million years ago. There should be a detailed record in the fossils of every branch of fish evolution. In fact, that is not the case. New species appear suddenly in the fossil record. And to claim that indeed fish evolution did take place, however new species always originated in small, isolated bodies of water whose fossils have been lost is a poor excuse. Darwin wrote in "Origin of Species" chapter 10 at the end: "Those who believe that the geological record is in any degree perfect, will undoubtedly at once reject the theory [of evolution]." Not very much has changed since then.

Dr. Theobald answered me as follows:

Actually, much has changed since then, as we have found many many more fossils, esp. transitional forms that were predicted by evolutionary theory. Darwin was correct in his statement above -- but it is the highest absurdity, given what we know about geology and fossilization, to think that "geological record is in any degree perfect".

As I understand him, Dr. Theobald is agreeing that some, however not very strong, direct evidence of evolution exists.

For more details about the problem of transitional fossils, click here.

I would suggest that each reader review the above dialogue carefully and draw his own conclusions.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Splitting Hares

The following is a passage from Leviticus:

11:1 God spoke to Moses and Aaron, telling them
11:2 to speak to the Israelites, and convey the following to them:
Of all the animals in the world, these are the ones that you may eat:
11:3 Among mammals, you may eat any one that has true hooves that are cloven and that brings up its cud.
11:4 However, among the cud-chewing, hoofed animals, these are the ones that you may not eat: The camel shall be unclean to you although it brings up its cud, since it does not have a true hoof.
11:5 The hyrax shall be unclean to you although it brings up its cud, since it does not have a true hoof.
11:6 The hare shall be unclean to you although it brings up its cud, since it does not have a true hoof.
11:7 The pig shall be unclean to you although it has a true hoof which is cloven, since it does not chew its cud.
11:8 Do not eat the flesh of any of these animals.

This passage has been used by skeptics to disprove Judaism.

First of all, it is argued that the hyrax and hare do not chew a cud. Second of all, the Talmud (Chullin 59a) states that that the animals listed here are the only ones possessing one sign of purity – either hooves or a cud, but not both. Modern zoologists however have discovered that warthogs, babirussas, peccaries, and llamas also possess this characteristic.

In my humble opinion, this apparent problem is easily explained.

The Bible is teaching the Jewish people to eat only animals that possess both signs of purity. In order to avoid errors, the Bible then lists all those animals native to the Middle East, which is where the Bible was given, which possess only one pure sign and are therefore forbidden but which might be mistaken as permissible. Warthogs are native to sub-Sahara Africa, babirussa to Indonesia, peccaries to the southwest United States and llamas to South America. No Jews lived in those regions until modern times. Do skeptics really believe that the Bible should have listed the llama and for the next 3,000 years until Europeans reached Peru, Jews would have been scratching their heads each time they read the Bible, having no idea what this animal is? The Talmud also presumably means that these are the only Middle Eastern animals with one sign of purity. [The Talmud Megillah 11a states that Achavshveros ruled "from one end of the world to the other". This obviously means "the Middle Eastern world".]

The hare and the hyrax do appear to chew a cud and were believed until modern times to have chewed a cud. Therefore the Bible warned Jews to avoid them although they appear to have one sign of purity.

Leviticus 11:5-7 therefore perfectly accomplishes it obvious purpose – which is not to deliver a modern day zoology lecture, but rather to teach the Jews to avoid consuming animals which could have easily been mistaken as pure.

This is completely in conformance with the well known Talmudic principle “The Torah was written in ordinary conversational language”. See Maimonides, Hilchos Yesodei haTorah 1:12 for similar cases.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Did the Exodus Really Happen?

[The eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines, 12 June 1991. Relatively mild, about 1/6 the size of Thera, 1600 BCE.]

The Bible tells us that 600,000 adult Israelite men together with their families left Egypt (according to rabbinical sources) in 1313 BCE.

Many people have questioned this claim, primarily because there are no Egyptian records that make any reference to such a momentous event or to the plagues that preceded it.

Professor Israel Finkelstein in the “The Bible Unearthed” page 59 writes “in the abundant Egyptian sources describing the time of the New Kingdom in general and the thirteenth century in particular, there is no reference to the Israelites, not even a single clue”. Therefore, concludes Professor Finkelstein, the Exodus could not have happened (page 63).

The question can be asked however: How complete are the Egyptian records from this period? There is no real literature, no actual books or chronicles, which have survived from that period of Egyptian history. (Actually the Bible is by far man’s earliest chronicle.) We have only a very limited number of inscriptions that have been recovered and translated. Seemingly, studying Egyptian history is like trying to reconstruct the history of the United States based on a smattering of tombstone inscriptions and the inscriptions on a few monuments. Our primary source of Egyptian history is in fact Aegyptiaca by Manetho written c. 300 BCE. And in fact we don’t even have Manetho, we only have portions of Manetho recorded about 800 years later, by writers who quote other writers, who quoted other writers, etc. who had read Manetho!

The eruption of the Thera volcano c. 1600 BCE can help to illustrate the problem. The eruption was perhaps four times as powerful as the Krakatoa eruption in 1883. The eruption occurred 450 miles from the Nile delta with the force of a 600 megaton hydrogen bomb. There would seem to be no question that the sound, smoke, ash and tsunami had a major impact on Egypt. However there is no reference to it, “not even a single clue”, in surviving Egyptian records even though we know from geological evidence that this certainly did happen.

It therefore seems silly to draw any conclusion from the gaps in Egyptian records. Obviously, in this case an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Eternal Jew

[detail from the Arch of Titus]

Mark Twain wrote in an essay entitled "Concerning the Jews", published 1898:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

The reason why the Jews are eternal is quite simple in my opinion: the truth cannot be suppressed completely. There will always be some people prepared to sacrifice everything they have for the truth. Those people are called "Jews".

What's interesting is that number of Jews seems to be fairly constant throughout history. According to some estimates The Jewish population has, from the time of the Exodus, been pretty consistently between one and five million. The number of observant Jews today is estimated to be about two million. While the world population as a whole has increased over 100 times, from about 50 million 3,000 years ago to 6.7 billion today, we Orthodox Jews have chugged along at a fairly constant size. Persecutions come and go, empires rise and fall, apostates leave, converts join, however we just keep going along at our own, fairly constant speed. It is as if God has rationed out the number of righteous people and plants a certain number in each generation.