Friday, June 2, 2017

Pascal's Wager, or The Futility of False Dichotomies.

          Blaise Pascal:  mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian—truly a polyglot.  Most of you probably associate him with his laws of fluid dynamics.  As a scientist, he was quite important to the then fledgling enlightenment.  He even had a unit of pressure, the Pascal, named for him.  As a lover of the sciences, he probably would be turning over in his grave if he knew how his “wager” was being misconstrued by many professional “kiruv klowns.”
          The wager can be stated as follows:
1.      Either god exists or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives (nb:  remember this part.  We will get back to this later).
2.     A game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up (like the flip of a coin, where there are ONLY two possible outcomes).
3.     You MUST wager (it is not optional).
4.     Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate the two chances.
a.     If you gain, you gain all.  (that is, if God exists, and you wagered that he exists, you have some “eternal reward” to gain).
b.     If you lose, you lose nothing.  (that is, if God does not exist, and you wagered that he does exist, then it doesn’t matter, what did you have to lose by acting like he does exist?)
5.     Therefore:  It is better to wager that God exists, because there is an infinite reward to gain, and a finite reward to lose if he does not.  (to use the analogy a Seventh-day Adventist preacher once used in a sermon that I attended, “it’s like betting a paper clip and gaining a house.)
6.     As for those who cannot believe:  endeavor to convince yourself that you believe.

We begin by analyzing the false dichotomy set up by Blaise Pascal.  At best, the wager is a great introduction to “decision theory.”  That is, when analyzing the opportunity cost of any major decision you have to make, when you weight what you have to gain/lose by each decision, assigning it a mathematical probability, you can determine which action is the best to take.
     Of course, the simplest illustration of this is doing a coin toss.  The assumption is that in a coin toss, you have exactly a 50% chance of flipping heads and a 50% chance of flipping tails.  In this situation, there is no advantage to picking either heads or tails.
A more sophisticated example would be the classic “Prisoner’s dilemma.”  There are many ways to approach this problem, so pardon me for dumbing it down for the sake of this exercise.  Let’s say Rueben and Simeon were both accused of committing a crime and were interrogated separately.  Rueben and Simeon have exactly two choices:  They can either stay silent or betray the other party.  The following table shows what happens with each choice.

Reuben stays silent
Rueben betrays Simeon
Simeon stays silent
Both serve one year in prison
Simeon serves 3 years, Reuben walks off with no sentence
Simeon betrays Rueben
Rueben serves 3 years, Simeon walks off with no sentence
Both serve two years in prison

I do not want to go through the many ways to approach this dilemma.  However, I have seen some websites use this dilemma as a philosophical “rock-paper-scissors” type game to see how people would “play each other” if they could recursively reenact this scenario.  Although in reality, there are more than two options, this still serves as a stellar example on how to teach “decision theory.”
Pascal very likely did not intend for his theory to be used as a baseline for praxis at all.   In fact, the only thing this wager could actually establish at all is that one cannot rationalize their beliefs, and in the end, they must resort elsewhere to justify their beliefs—not logic.

Let us look at the first proposition of the wager.  Either God exists, or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two.
          Of course reason cannot actually determine if god exists.  After Pascal’s time, Karl Popper would establish the concept of “falsifiability.”  The fact is, one cannot falsify most theological arguments.  I cannot set up an experiment or test to empirically disprove that Russell’s Teapot exists.  Therefore, for me to decide which of the many possible deities or faith systems are more correct than others, I have to rely on means that are beyond the scope of science and reason.  I must rely on semantical arguments, conjecture, and faith. 
          This is key in understanding the real intention of Pascal’s Wager.  I cannot use logic to find God.  So I must rely on faith.
          And so, since I am relying on faith, Pascal decides to make it interesting.  Let us forget about the fact that Pascal was a practicing Catholic, so he was probably speaking of a Catholic faith system.  Would Pascal have believed that one who practiced Lutheranism also had an infinite to gain?  What about the Jews?  Muslims?  Hindus?  Zoroastrians?  Buddhists?  Jainists?  Find yourself a deity, and assume it exists.
          Remember, you only have two choices here.  Your choices are like flipping a coin—heads or tails.  Either your preferred deity exists, or it does not.
          If you do what that preferred deity says, you have infinite to gain. 
          In reality, there is no universally accepted belief in one deity that will get you and infinite reward no matter where in the world you are. 
          That’s right.  The Seven Noachide Laws?  Nope.  Not if you are a Catholic.  The sixth law, not eating a limb from a live animal, is not an issue for them. 
          What about not eating fish on Friday during Lent?  Jews don’t have a problem with that.
          There are so many laws, rules, regulations, and bylaws specific to each faith system.  Why should a Jew waste their time praying three times a day every day and extra on Sabbath when it might be enough to just receive communion and confess your sins?  And why should a Catholic confess their sins when perhaps what God really might want is for you to shut the f..k up and just meditate for a few minutes each day? 
          I mean it’s one thing to assume that either God exists or does not.  But what does that have to do with Praxis?
          Repeat after me:  JACK and SQUAT.  In that order.

          Final thought:
          There is a simpler problem with Pascal’s Wager.
          Is it better to genuinely disbelieve or disgenuinely believe?
          Let’s say I only keep kosher and pray three times a day because if I don’t, then the scary invisible pink unicorn in the sky is going to kick my ass when I die?  If I were an omnipotent and omniscient being, would I give two shits about whether or not said person actually refrained from eating pork?
          Food for thought.
          “Bring no more vain offerings.  Incense is an abomination to me.  New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your New Moons and your appointed feasts, my soul hates them.  They have become a burden to me.  I am weary of burdening them.”
          --Isaiah 1:13-14.
          I believe that the prophet Isaiah hit the nail on the head here.  This can apply to anyone who thinks that life is about kissing some deity’s ass to get into heaven.  If you believe, great, tzeit gezunt.  But If you don’t believe, don’t think that just because you are winging it and feigning devoutness, that the same deity who was quite bloodthirsty in the Old Testament cares about you.
          If you can’t bring yourself to believe, don’t force yourself. 
          Search for the answers.
          Don’t buy into the bullshit of the people who want to impose their beliefs on yours.
          Search for the truth. 
          And if you’re frustrated because you can’t find the truth, don’t take it too hard.  You need to find what works for you.  Consider it a challenge.  Enjoy it. 

          And remember, faith is not a coin toss.  It can be a beautiful thing.  But not if it is forced upon you or disingenuous.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Kuzari--a Proletarian Approach.

     Reading through the first chapter of the Kuzari again, I have tried to come to terms with his hypothesis for why Judaism is the Truth.  Some version of his rationale is one of the simpler arguments commonly used in the kiruv industry when trying to convince people to be Jewish.  Between that and Pascal's Wager, I've seen even educated people fall into a sophistic claptrap and be unable to pull themselves out.

           Before I continue, I would like to firmly state my intention.  I come not to tear down the walls of the yeshiva.  For those who genuinely believe, and for those who use their beliefs to bring light into the world, I say render unto yourselves that which you find sacred.  But for those who use pseudoscience and fallacious logic to try to impose your views on others, I am speaking to you.  I, the self-righteous heathen, speak to you.  And to those of you on the fence, I encourage you to read up on those more learned than me.  

           There are many people more learned than me who can take apart the common kiruv arguments using math, using logic, using science, using archaeology, using many disciplines I don't have the sitzfleisch to master.  So I will attempt to deconstruct it using my proletarian understanding of the subject.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A WORD.  The word was spread throughout mankind.  But mankind could not seem to remember the word.  They eventually began to use their words to create new words.  And with those words they worshiped other entities.  The word begat other words, and the one begat many.

             Along came an archetype, a shiekh called Abraham.  He was very likely a Northern Semitic expatriot from Ur or Elam.  From there his family migrated to Haran.  And from there, he moved to the land of the Canaanites.  In that land, there were many local deities, and some grand ones.  The one he chose to worship was known by many names; He revealed Himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He stayed with Abraham for many years.  Abraham begat a son named Isaac, and Isaac a son named Jacob.  Jacob begat 12 sons.  Eventually, the 12 sons migrated to Egypt to escape a famine.  The second-youngest, Joseph, became a vizier named Zaphnath Paneach.

            As far as I know, there is no actual archaeological or historical evidence to back up much of the above.  That there was a Semitic influx around the time, that is true.  That a group commonly called the "Hyksos" ruled Egypt for a time is agreed upon.  Modern scholars doubt that the Hyksos were the Hebrews.  There was another group called the Hapiru (or Habiru).  That sounds more like Hebrew (or Ivri), but the jury is still out on that one.

            Our story really begins with an Exodus of 600,000 men, roughly 2 million people total.  The Exodus was spurned by one Moses.  Moses bore the name of a deity who claimed to be the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was known by many names.  He revealed himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He told Moses "Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh", or as Popeye would say, "I 'yam what I 'yam."  He revealed to Moses his ineffable name YHWH (perhaps Yehovah, or one really knows).  Bearing this name, Moses and his brother Aaron sent 10 plagues on Egypt.  When that was over, the Pharaoh let the 600,000+ slaves go to their promised land.

               There are many holes that can be poked into this one.  For starters, a slave rebellion of that size would not go unrecorded.  The population of Egypt itself was barely larger than a million at the time.  If that many people actually escaped Egypt, it would have been a bigger deal.

               Assuming the Exodus happened around the time it allegedly happened, then Egypt would have ruled Canaan at the time, and would have had garrisons throughout.  It would not have been safe to run away there.

               They were afraid to escape the route of the Phillistines.  But the Phillistines would not have been in the picture yet.  Clear anachronism.

               I am purposely leaving out the problems brought up by higher criticism, such as the notion that Moses and Aaron were rivals, that the P narrative is supporting Aaronid, and D supports the Mushites (supporters of Moses and a monarchy, not a priestly caste).  I am also leaving out the split narrative of J (Judah, the southern tribes), and E (Joseph, the Northern tribes).  I will address those at a different time.  

          And so, the Children of Israel wandered in a desert for some time before approaching a mountain alternatively known as Horeb or Sinai.  It was on this mountain that the Children of Israel had a massive epiphany.  It wasn’t like when Jesus went in the desert all by himself, got tempted by the Satan, and overcame him.  It wasn’t like when Muhammed went up the mountain all by himself and heard the word of Allah from the angel Jibril.  No, it wasn’t like any other epiphany in recorded history.   All 600,000 men, plus the women and children were there in front of Horeb/Sinai.  Each and over one of them heard the word of God as He recited the Decalogue.  And oh yeah, the midrash takes it further.  Not only that, but did you know that the souls of every Jew who would ever be born was there too?  Yep, it was a spectacular epiphany.
          And then came the Golden Calf.

A brief pause.
          Ladies and Gentlemen, let us pause to soak in the magnitude of this epiphany.  600,000 people saw the same thing.  Not one.  And thus, this narrative must be true.  Why?  Bear with me. 

          I am purposely reducing the elegant argument to its bare bones, so please feel free to provide me with a link to a more fleshed out version of the argument in the comments.

          So we have a choice.  A dichotomy if you will.  Either the story happened, or it didn’t.  True or false.

          Let’s say it’s false:  If only one person saw it, then you only need to falsify one person.  If two people saw it, that’s two people to falsify.  600,000 men is pretty effing hard to falsify.  Because I could lie about one person or two people or even ten people seeing something crazy.  But to lie about 600,000 people seeing something crazy such as a big fire on a mountain?  No one in their right mind would buy that.

         OR WOULD THEY?

I propose a few thought experiments for those who think that the Kuzari hypothesis is incontrovertible.

1)      Never underestimate human gullibility.  As Einstein allegedly said, “two things are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”  I don’t know if Einstein ever really said that, but bear with me.
a.      Are you familiar with Stanley Milgram’s experiments? If not, here is a good link.  Humans will believe all sorts of asinine things when told by a well-modulated authoritative voice.
b.     Nickelback has sold over 50 million records worldwide.  That means how many people out there actually think Nickelback sounds good?  (I kid, but seriously?  Nickelback?)
c.       Another post for another time is how many people every year get sucked up into cults.  Don’t get me started here. 
2)     But it’s impossible!  600,000 people can’t be deluded into believing something false?
a.      Consider this.  If you are a Jew, then you think that your way is the only authentic way.  Given that, 2.17 billion people worldwide identify as Christian; 1.6 billion identify as Muslim; 1.13 identify as unaffiliated; 1.03 identify as Hindu, and only 0.01 billion identify as Jews.     (source:  Pew Forum)

How could such a large chunk of the world believe in “false idols”?  If theirs is such a lie, and is so much more easily falsifiable than Judaism, then why do so many more people believe in it?
b.     Ever played a game called telephone? 

You know the rules.  Everyone sit in a circle.  The first person in the circle gets a message.  He or she whispers it to the person next to them.  That person whispers it to the person next to them. Keep going until everyone in the circle hears the message.  The last person must say aloud what they heard.

In the end, the last message is rarely ever the same as the first.  At least I’ve never seen it happen.

Now let’s change the game a bit.  How stories change over generations. 

Assume, if you will, that the Torah was not finalized until the 6th century B.C.E (or so).  Perhaps by a man named Ezra.  Before that, there were many competing traditions.  Is it plausible, then, that over the 2 millennia or so between the alleged epiphany of Sinai and the times of Ezra that some parts of the story were embellished, perhaps made to be more grandiose? 
This is just the groundwork for what I hope to be a larger and more drawn out answer to those who try to shake my lack of faith.

Have a great week,


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Futility of It All

In the beginning, there was only a word.  But there was nobody to hear the word.  So the word reverberated in empty space.

The word was followed by other words.  Soon, the entire spacetime continuum was filled with words.  But alas, there were only particles.

Words in a vacuum are useless.

Yet somehow, those words still persevered.

The particles begat bigger particles.  And they begat atoms.  The atoms begat other atoms.  Those atoms begat molecules.  And those molecules continued to grow and proliferate.

Until finally, the Universe was bigger than fathomable even to the most omniscient of beings.

But the words were still null and void.

For billions and billions of years, there was no one to hear words.  Hell, I'm not even sure who was speaking those words.  But I do have faith that those words were there.  To the best of my recollection, words have always existed.

And with those words, my world has been circumscribed.

In the end, there are too many words.

And 99.9% of those words still are uttered in vain.

If silence is the canvas and perception is my easel,
my masterpiece is a cacophonous Jackson Pollock turgid philippic
about the futility of it all.

Monday, January 16, 2017

American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson Mid-season Analysis

I started watching American Crime Story this weekend.  

It was toward the end of my 8th grade year when the whole thing with OJ Simpson started.  I am too young to remember OJ's heyday as #32.  From what I'm told, he was to football in his day what Michael Jordan was to basketball in my day.  And so, it was quite the big deal when OJ became prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her boyfriend Ronald Goldman.

I never really did follow the trial.  I knew the basics.  He tried to escape.  There was a highly publicized car chase.  One of the NBA finals games was interrupted just to show this chase, and many fans were offended.  

I knew that OJ hired a "Dream Team" of lawyers.  I knew that they were calling the trial a media circus.  My father once said that if he was Judge Lance Ito, he would have put each and every one of those lawyers in contempt.  

In the end, OJ was acquitted.  However, there was later a civil trial where OJ was found liable for the murders of Brown and Goldman.  Many people I was raised around considered OJ to be clearly guilty as sin.

But one thing was clear.  In the end, this trial was not just about OJ and whether or not he committed double-homicide.  It wasn't about Nicole Brown or Ronald Goldman either.  And it especially wasn't about the showboating.  It was about the racial tensions in LA, especially with the police and the court system; it was about celebrity culture; it became much bigger than even OJ could fathom.


American Crime Story tries to show the story from the perspective of the multiple parties involved.  It's not just about OJ, who is adeptly played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.  I always pictured OJ as being more stoic and laconic than the way Cuba portrays him.  I guess I'm basing this on the Naked Gun movies but also the footage of the trials that I had seen.  Generally, OJ appeared to be strong and steadfast.  But this show portrays him as being very emotionally delicate.  He is seen having serious mood swings, crying a lot, being quite indecisive, but then going back to being strong and egotistical.  He is shown to have a scary side to him (one that pleaded Nolo to battery of the same woman he was accused of murdering).  He is also shown to have written a suicide note, attempting suicide (or feigning it...), and generally being at the whim of the many lawyers who were trying to help him.

On the other side, we have Marcia Clark.  She is a hard-working competent ADA whose hubris is that she thinks this case is a slam dunk for her.  When the case becomes the circus that it does, she is clearly overwhelmed, but she still rolls with the punches.  Even when it is pointed out to her point blank that her public approval ratings are quite low, that she’s commonly seen as a bitch with bad hair who needs to soften up her image, she hardly cracks.  Marcia is willing to do anything to get her win, even against a plethora of celebrity lawyers and with a media that is bipolar about whether they’re with her or against her.

At first, OJ has a lawyer named Howard Weizmann, who is clearly too small time for this case.  So per the advice of family friend Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer), OJ hires Robert Shapiro (played by John Travolta).  It’s hard to divorce Schwimmer and Travolta from their previous roles.  Schwimmer, in particular, still has some semblance of Ross Gellar.  But soon, it is clear that Kardashian (who was also small-time) and Shapiro would not be enough.  One of Shapiro’s main Achilles’ Heals is that he is a negotiator who usually takes a plea bargain for his clients.  Though he has successfully defended many celebrities, it appears that OJ has too much to lose by accepting a plea bargain.

And so, it comes to a point where the team consists of some of the biggest names, but also the biggest egos, in the legal field.  I’m told that Alan Dershowitz is not fond of Evan Handler’s portrayal of him.  Indeed, Dersh is made out to be a snooty Ivy League intellectual who can’t go 15 words without mentioning something about Harvard.  But there are some things this show definitely got right about Dersh.  For one, Dersh has a reputation as being a whore, a man who has no scruples about whom he will defend, and how he will defend them at all costs.  Plenty of people I know castigate Dersh freely for the fervor he has defended alleged rapists, and the way he comes down on the alleged victims, trying to invalidate their testimonies—they say Dersh is the embodiment of “rape culture”.  On one hand, everyone does deserve legal representation, and Dersh is consistent about that.  On the other hand, people do consider a lot of his methods underhanded. 

And then we have Johnny Cochran.  Yes, he was famous before the trial, but OJ made him a superstar.  I had a Hebrew teacher in high school who used to call him “Johnny Cockroach.”  He had a reputation for playing the “race card”, for making Mark Fuhrman out to be racist, for rhyming “if it don’t fit you must acquit.”  But this show gives him some dimension.  Like at first, he didn’t want to accept the trial; but he was outspokenly on OJ’s side.  Eventually, Kardashian and F. Lee Bailey convinced him to join.  And once Cochran was on board, they finally had a solid litigator—one who could potentially make OJ a winner.

And so, we do see plenty of “clash of the egos.”  Marcia Clark did predict that it would happen.  And so it did.  It came to a head when Shapiro (as predicted) suggested they plea for a charge of manslaughter.  This pissed Cochran off to no end, and he in a very backhanded way got Shapiro removed as lead council (with Bailey and Kardashian talking OJ into following suit).  We see that OJ never wanted it to be that way.  He wanted it to be like back in his days playing football, when he could put his differences with his teammates behind him every Sunday when playing the game.  He didn’t originally want a guy like Cochran to play the race card.  He just wanted to go home and be with his family.

But then, when Cochran was point blank accused of playing the race card, he delivered a very powerful monologue about how history has been one big racial tension, and that if his pointing that out means playing the race card, then so be it.  It does amaze me that here, Cochran is seen as a man of principle—manipulative, but still principled.

To be continued when I finish the series.