14 November 2011

Rabbi encourages ignorance

In a recent blog in PuffHo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs, the great yutz of New York, tried to argue "why really everyone believes."  Presumably, we're talking about god here, though the only thing I believe having read his ridiculous post is that Jacobs is an evil prick who promotes ignorance for the sake of peddling his fairy tales.

Jacobs's post has already been properly deconstructed by Jerry Coyne; I'd like to follow up on a couple of other points.

Jacobs prelude contains a vile insult, one that immediately relegates him, in my opinion, to the contemptible charlatans of religion.  He writes: "Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level?"

Here, he asserts that the only way one's life can have meaning is when rooted to belief in a fairy tale god.  This is bullshit of the first order.  I look at my wife and my children, and I know that I've made a difference.  I look at my students, and I know I've made a difference.  I look at the smile of the street musician when I drop some change into his guitar case, and I know I've made a difference.  I don't need some imaginary god to validate me. I detest that people can have such low self-esteem that they think the only way to achieve meaning is to believe in a myth, and I positively hate people people like Jacobs who project their own limp inadequacies onto everyone else.

Still, for the sake of completeness, here are my thoughts about the rest of Jacobs's prattle.

He proposes a simple three-point test to identify if you "believe."  Here's a quick summary.

1. "Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?"

Apparently, believers find something wrong with the notion of not treating a dead body with "respect."  I'm not sure why.  If there is an afterlife, then my parent's soul has gone there, rendering the body but an empty shell.  If there isn't an afterlife - hey, guess what?  Still an empty shell.  Everything that is left behind of my parents is in my mind and in the minds of the others who knew them.  So why shouldn't I sell their remains?

Jacobs writes: "Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer." 

If it's subconscious, then it's probably just an instinct derived from evolution, or learned behaviour from your childhood - neither of which gets us near believership.  Notice too how Jacobs insidiously attempts to repulse you by choosing something distasteful: having one's mother's corpse turned into "pet grub."  How about donating her corpse to science?  There's lots of things that "desecrate" a body but which aren't that bad really.  And what's wrong with being turned into pet grub?  What do you think happens to a decomposing corpse in a buried coffin?
(Full disclosure: both my parents are dead.  I haven't sold their remains because no one wants to buy them, and because I gave them my word that I would respect their wishes.  Notice this has nothing to do with their wishes, and everything to do with the value I associate with my being honourable with respect to my own standards.)

2. "You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?"

False dichotomy.  Jacobs tries to make you think you only have two alternatives: make nice with your enemy, or beat his brains out.  There's lots of other options.  Given the circumstances, I personally would just go for a swim and let my mind wander till the tsunami hits.

Also, the question is not really different from asking you what you will do with your life.  Basically, the issue is that you have a short life followed by an inescapable death.  On the island is one hour long; in reality it's around 80 years, composed of about 508,800 one-hour units.  What you do with each of those one-hour units is treated by exactly the same question as Jacobs stupidly asks of his readers.

3. "Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?"

Here the question is really whether any of these things exist except in the mind.  Is any one of them, as Jacobs puts it, "one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis?"

Appealing to one's innate sense of these things is not enough, because it has been clearly shown in the research on the human brain and mind that there are direct correlations between brain function and those innate senses.  Furthermore, Jacobs discounts entirely the notion of emergent properties - complex things that only exist as a result of the interactions between simple things.  This too is extremely well documented.

There's a certain theme running through all of Jacobs's arguments.  They're all based on appealing to the ignorance of the common folk.  There's no sense here that he's appealing to people based on scientific knowledge - in fact, he categorically ignores it.  Nor are his arguments well-constructed.  As both Dr. Coyne and I have shown, each in different ways, there are all kinds of holes in Jacobs's arguments, holes that comprehensively invalidate them.

This is, in my opinion, the evil bit.  Either Jacobs is willfully ignorant (if he hasn't bothered to educate himself about logical argumentation and science) or a liar (if he does know about those things and chooses to ignore them for the sake of making a point).  In either case, by appealing to - and even encouraging - ignorance and naive reasoning, he is endorsing exactly the sort of myopic and hateful thinking that has held back humanity for the last couple of millennia.

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