Friday, September 07, 2012

Two discussion of faith.
My students, however, did not become Maimonideans. Modern Orthodox Jews often revere Maimonides as a model for reconciling Torah (or revelation) and madda (reason). My Hasidic students don't buy it. All attempts to integrate secular life and Jewish tradition ultimately ring false to them. In a sense they keep Torah and the secular world as strictly apart as their rabbis do; they have just switched allegiances. Moshe tells me about a Lubavitcher friend who led a double life for years. "During the day he was a brilliant Talmud teacher, during the night he explored Manhattan's culture and art scene. Then he became Modern Orthodox and started teaching in a more liberal Yeshiva. But he still doesn't believe in any of it."

They have a good laugh when I tell them about the Yom Kippur sermon I heard in Princeton's conservative synagogue. The female rabbi argued that there was no contradiction between obeying God and personal autonomy. The mitzvot must convince us that observing them is beneficial for us. ("If you want a day off from email, cell phone, and other disturbances—keep Shabbat!") What God tells us to do coincides with what we really want to do. "Let's hear how good a case a piece of bacon can make for kashrus," Isaac jokes. When I say that I have no qualms about circumcising my son, Abraham is surprised: "Why would you do such a thing if you don't believe in the bris shel Avraham (Abrahamic covenant)?"

They also doubt that Maimonides truly believed he had bridged the gap. "Did he really think that Moses was a great philosopher?" Isaac asks. "Wasn't he just bluffing to escape the anger of the masses?" They are more attracted to Spinoza. Jacob mentions an old Hebrew book on Spinoza's life and thought by Hillel Zeitlin, a Jewish writer and intellectual who was raised in Lubavitch and strongly identified with Spinoza after losing his childhood faith. In the last chapter, Zeitlin claims that central ideas in Spinoza can also be found in Maimonides and other Jewish thinkers. "But Spinoza was more honest than Maimonides," Jacob says. "He didn't pretend that his views fit with traditional Judaism. That's why he was excommunicated."
Dear Professor Coyne,
First, I am curious whether you take yourself to be relying on some combination of the ad hominem fallacy and the guilt by association fallacy every time you mention that Nahmias has received funding from the Templeton Foundation. It would make more sense, from the standpoint of both logic and professionalism, just to attack Nahmias’s arguments rather than trying to impugn his motives. If you think that the source of Nahmias’s funding is relevant to the discussion then I, for one, would really like to hear precisely why.

Second and relatedly, it’s worth pointing out that your claim that it’s unsurprising that the Templeton Foundation supports researchers who lobby for compatibilism is…well, surprising. After all, your own argument is crucially based on the empirical claim that the folk concept of free will is incompatibilist, dualist, etc.–a view which you suggest is driven by the Christian world view (i.e., the official view of the Templeton Foundation). But then wouldn’t the Templeton Foundation be fishing for evidence for dualism, incompatibilism, etc.? If so, why would they give $4 million in funding to a group of researchers who are predominantly either compatibilists (like Nahmias) or free will skeptics (like me, Haggard, Wheatley, and others)? If your Templeton conspiracy theory were true, one would expect fewer compatibilists and skeptics and more libertarians. Of course, once we look at the actual views of the folks who got funding through Mele’s BQFW, it revels what’s wrong with the way you try to use Nahmias’s funding to undermine his views–which is presumably why you didn’t bother to either look at or mention these details.

As a free will skeptic and atheist who (a) has frequently collaborated with Nahmias, and (b) happens to also currently be funded by Templeton through Mele’s BQFW Project, I think it’s quite clear that your argumentative strategy is dependent upon on a number of questionable assumptions both about Nahmias’s motives and the way BQFW funding was dispensed. And I have just finished writing a book chapter that criticizes both Mele and Nahmias and presents some new evidence that partly supports your claims about folk dualism and libertarianism. So, it’s not like I am just towing the line for Jesus, the Templeton Foundation, Nahmias, compatibilists, or anyone else. But the thinly veiled strategy of character assassination that you adopt in this piece–whereby Nahmias is dismissed as a Templeton Foundation shill for compatibilist free will (see above for why this doesn’t make much sense)–is distasteful and distracting.
Social life is politics.  Success (a philosopher might say "flourishing") occurs when people engage each other both through principles and a flexible relation to those principles,  admitting loyalty to their commitments while allowing a sympathetic understanding of those who don't share them, with the willingness to see adversaries as partners in an ongoing relation.   The relations among individuals within the group will model the relations of those within to those outside.

There's more serious discussion of the world and more irony regarding faith in the first three paragraphs above than in the last.  The world the first paragraphs describe is preferable, socially, politically, philosophically, esthetically etc.  I agree with Coyne, to the degree that agreement is possible in the deterministic world,  except  -following the same caveat- for the stupidity of his preaching. He's invested in  the "truth" of evolution as others are invested in the "truth" that once lay at the top of Mt Everest and is now apparently on Mars.  The only two things at either place, now or ever, are rocks and a view.  And creationists are as prone to taking penicillin as atheist GPs are to overprescribe.

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