A robust worldview is one that is coherent and can give (at least) some form of justification for the truth of its core beliefs. It should be capable of engaging intellectually with the world on the highest levels.
Judaism is a worldview, and it is only natural that philosophically minded Jews ask serious questions about their religion and question whether they are justified in holding their beliefs. It does not matter if an individual was raised with Judaism or joined it at a later age as a Baal Teshuvah or convert. One’s original reasons for joining can later be questioned as one’s mind ripens or as new questions arise. For many of us, the words from Plato’s Apology resonate deeply: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Reason, arguments and honest doubt play an integral role in our worldview. This quest is deeper than emotional doubts and fears of “What if it’s all a lie?” It is a genuine desire to probe and understand. It is a thirst that cannot be quenched with populist kiruv arguments or watered down postmodernism.
At the core of this quest often stands the question of God’s existence. Is there evidence for the existence of God? And if not, are we justified in believing in Him without evidence? These are not simple questions. The debates around this are often cheapened with buzzwords and catchy phrases from all sides of the discussion:
“You can’t prove or disprove God.”
“True for you, but not for me.”
My personal favorite is any sentence beginning with “After Hume and Kant,” implying that all past and future arguments for God have somehow been irrevocably refuted by outdated 18th century philosophy.
This blog post will discuss how we can move far beyond the standard rhetoric and approach serious study.
I will discuss the current state of the debate on God’s existence, its relevance to Jews today, and what Think Sinai hopes to provide on this topic. Nothing is more central to a Jew’s life than this all important question, and it is fitting that this be Think Sinai’s first post.
The Resurgence of Religious Philosophy
For the middle decades of the last century, atheism was the dominant flavor in philosophy departments of the English speaking world. This was mainly due to the popularity of logical positivism, which stated that most religious language, including the word ‘God’, was literally meaningless because it could not be empirically verified. This attitude changed in the late 60s and early 70s with a revived interest in natural theology, the discipline exploring theological truths by means of philosophical inquiry without appeal to revelation or holy texts.
Many attribute this ideological shift to the 1967 publication of the book God and Other Minds, in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga applies the tools of analytical philosophy to the study of religion. This publication heralded a new movement whose spirit was best captured in 1977 by philosopher Richard Swinburne:
It is one of the intellectual tragedies of our age that when philosophy in the English speaking countries has developed high standards of argument and clear thinking, the style of theological writing has been largely influenced by the continental philosophy of Existentialism, which, despite its considerable other merits, has been distinguished by a very loose and sloppy style of argument. If argument has a place in Theology, large-scale theology needs clear and rigorous argument.
(The Coherence of Theism, p. 7)
Agnostic philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny described the period:
Philosophers of religion were in a pretty shattered state when I first came to the subject, and thought it would be wonderful if they could prove that religious propositions had meaning, let alone that they were true […] In the fifty years I’ve been in philosophy I think there’s been a great revival of confidence among philosophers of religion.
(“Wisdom of Not Knowing.” The Philosophers’ Magazine. Issue 37 (2007): 38–39)
The revival of natural theology and the philosophy of religion reinvigorated and restored several classical arguments for God and also generated several new arguments. Some of the movement’s leading thinkers, such as Plantinga, even make a philosophical case that belief in God is properly basic. This would mean that individuals are warranted in believing in God without appeal to further arguments, just as, for example, belief in the existence of other minds can also be considered a properly basic belief.
Some philosophers have called our time a revolution in Anglo-American religious philosophy. As Time Magazine put it:
In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.
(“Modernizing the Case for God” (7 April 1980): pp. 65–66.)
Contemporary Arguments for God’s Existence
A current popular argument for God is the fine-tuning argument. This argument is a classical design argument that focuses on modern discoveries in cosmology. Research has unearthed that the initial conditions of the Big Bang were fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life. These conditions are so fine-tuned that statistical calculations of the possibility of their being random reach absurd and inconceivable ratios. Thus theists will argue that design is the most reasonable option of the three possible explanations—chance, physical necessity, and design—and thereby derive the existence of a cosmic designer.
Another popular contemporary argument is the Leibnizian cosmological argument, one form of which argues that every contingent being has an explanation for its existence. Seeing that the universe is a contingent being, it follows that it has an explanation for its existence. That explanation is God. Although this argument is somewhat abstract, I find it enormously powerful, especially as defended by philosopher Alexander Pruss.
Another cosmological argument is the Kalam cosmological argument, which argues that everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause. Seeing that the cause of the universe has to transcend the universe itself, this cause must transcend the universe’s salient features, which are time, space, and material. Thus the cause must timeless, spaceless, and immaterial. To have created the universe, it must also be enormously powerful. Defenders of the argument also argue that the cause is personal rather than impersonal. This timeless, spaceless, immaterial and powerful cause is what we call God.
The Importance of Being Earnest
The brevity of the above encapsulations should not mislead the reader into thinking them simple. There are shelves of rigorous books written by top-notch scholars filled with refutations and defenses of these arguments with detail and nuance the equivalent of any academic enterprise. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2012) is an excellent source for a more in-depth study of these issues.
Atheist philosophers have developed a library of refutations of theistic arguments and have rigorously defended the strength of their own position. Some present new versions of the problem of evil. Others argue that the claim of God’s existence is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence of a level not reached by natural theology. I recently discovered a world of thinkers who consider agnosticism the most reasonable position and do not shy away from questioning theists and atheists alike.
How is this Relevant for Jews?
Some may question the relevance or even appropriateness of philosophy to faith. This separatist ideology certainly has its precedence in traditional Jewish thought, but the opposing symbiotic view also claims respected and authoritative supporters. Many of our great medieval Jewish philosophers strongly endorsed philosophically informed Judaism. In his famed philosophical treatise, Maimonides writes:
Bear in mind that by ‘faith’ we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul [mind].
(Moreh Nevuchim, 1:50)
Eleventh century philosopher Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda considers philosophical research not only meritorious but necessary:
Whoever has the intellectual capacity to verify what he receives [from tradition] and yet is prevented from doing so by his own laziness, or because he takes lightly God’s commandments and Torah — he will be punished for this and held accountable for negligence.
(Duties of the Heart: Introduction)
The Importance of Being Open-Minded
I believe that someone truly seeking both breadth and depth of understanding should also examine the works of atheists and agnostic thinkers. Researching opposing positions and counter arguments is crucial, as the Sforno (15th century) writes about the verse from Devarim:
‘Understand it today.’ Without a doubt, it is proper to rationally investigate and know every argument to the contrary.
‘And reflect on it in your mind.’ And afterwards, reflect on that portion which is true.
(Commentary on Devarim, 4:39)
Some of the strongest defenders of theistic reasonableness today are Christians. Despite the knee jerk opposition some would display at the thought of learning from our fellow theists, one would be foolish not to read the works of Christian scholars. The 13th century Jewish philosopher Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera stated:
It is not proper for an intelligent person who seeks to know the truth to reject many things which were revealed to the philosophers, which they explained by a true proof, and which are indubitable, as they said, just because they are not of our people. Rather, he should listen to the truth from the one who says it, and he should not look at the speaker but rather at the truth of what he says.
Think Sinai’s Goals
How important is … the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!
(Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 6 May 1851)
Think Sinai affirms that a vibrant worldview synthesizes philosophy, science and Divine revelation. Its name represents the meeting of the two most powerful influences on human civilization. Our interviews, articles, podcasts and videos offer a home for all who gravitate to the premise that academic methodology and our Torah are the most powerful tools available for thinking Jews.
Duties of the Heart Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda
The Revolution in Anglo-American Philosophy William Lane Craig
Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages Raphael Jospe
Guide of the Perplexed Moses Maimonides
The Coherence of Theism Richard Swinburne
A Sceptics Guide to Atheism Peter S. Williams