Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Shofar Delusion

Stone Age ram figurine (Yael Yolovitch/Israel Antiquities Authority)
There was a time I would have described the shofar as a spiritual "technology" of sorts, that simply the sound of it reverberating in our ears produces a corrective change within. Kind of like Draino for the neshama - it clears the system, washes away the gunk that's built up over the past year, restoring "flow." So no, you can't use a trumpet, or a non-kosher shofar, or listen to an audio recording of a shofar - not because these things are inherently "bad" but because they don't "work."

There was a time I would have been concerned when I missed one of the hundred shofar blasts - if say I had to leave the room or if the Baal Tokea wasn't blowing properly. Again, it wasn't out of a concern over "aveira (sin)" - it was that this special yearly "treatment" was being compromised.

For me, it was never about Hashem scrutinizing my every move to see if I was listening to the shofar, that somehow I'd be in the celestial doghouse if I failed to comply with Halacha. My conception of Halacha was as a how-to guide for maintaining/repairing our "energies," albeit on subtle, hard-to-detect level. (Indeed, extremely subtle. So subtle as to perhaps be... pure self-suggestion!) I saw Halacha as the physical instruction and Kabbalah as the explanation. All the stuff about the shofar "confounding the Satan" in order to arouse the "compassion of the King," so as to give us a good "judgement" - I never bought into that. It always struck me as a mashal, a metaphor for certain mysterious, nonphysical processes at work, ones which are particularly "active" at the time of Rosh Hashana.

And I reveled in the idea that Judaism possessed such a technology, that for millennia it has known the "secrets" of life and inner workings of the universe, and that some day - after we reached a degree of maturity, understanding and tikkun, when we were "ready" - this system would be fully "revealed" so that all of humanity could benefit.

All very beautiful and exciting, yes - but also, as I woke up to eventually, completely and utterly deluded. Sure, if you had to pick between a delusion that's creative, forward thinking and benevolent, and a delusion (like say, on the part of "ISIS") that's barbaric, psychopathic and destructive, you'd certainly choose the former. However, all things being equal, why not be benevolent and non-deluded? That's my earnest goal, at any rate.

So this morning I heard someone blowing the shofar in a nearby house. And it struck me - wow, what a crude and almost prehistoric custom, blowing through a ram's horn. It's basically a throwback to an ancient world rife with tribal genocide, witchcraft medicine, animal smells everywhere, and a notable lack of plumbing. We're talking about an instrument used to assemble the masses, march the men off to war, etc. Why the heck are we doing this now? Why is this so "precious" to us? Because it ain't a "technology." And it ain't, by any stretch of reason, the "will of God."

And I thought: Yes, all that is true. Yes it's all rather crude. But it's our bit of crudeness. It's our weirdness. It's strange and out of place - but in a kind of quirky, meaningful, distinctly "Jewish" way. It's part of our national memory. It's part of our personal memory. It's one of many pieces in the fabric of our identities as Jews. It's something the kids look forward to on Rosh Hashana. It's a "live performance" that by nature has some excitement and drama to it, since it doesn't always go as planned, and everyone is there quietly "rooting" for it to go well. And there are of course some interesting and even useful associations we can attach to hearing the sound of the shofar, such as:
  • The idea of being jarred from the quasi-slumber of day-to-day existence, pausing for a moment to focus on those things that truly matter to us, reflecting on what we're doing with our lives and recommitting ourselves to the path we think we ought to take.
  • The fact that life is short, unpredictable, and to a large extent outside our control, and that we stand in awe, trepidation and hope at what the year to come may bring.
  • The notion that we have certain feelings and experiences that are impossible to fully express in words, and which in an odd way we feel we can give some sort of voice to in this unique and wordless "sound."

And that's all the shofar needs to be, all it needs to "do." Which is plenty. I think it's a shame when we're made to believe it's not, that our human experience and Jewish experience are somehow lacking, deficient, even worthless, unless we see them as also doing something of "mystical" or "cosmic" significance.

To me, this is a type of "spiritual sensationalism," getting people hooked on the idea that if it's not "magical," it's boring. If it's not "larger than life," it's all kind of "meh." That's why I prefer more of a humanistic approach. Whatever is going on "out there," in some otherworldly sense, is an interesting subject to ponder over a beverage, but back here on the planet Earth it's about people - us and our experiences together.

To quote yesterday's parsha, "It is not in the heavens... neither is it beyond the sea... for the matter is very close to you."

And with that, I wish everyone a Shana Tova.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Miracle Stories - Skeptical Edu-tainment

Whenever I hear miracle stories about people being healed from disease or saved from peril of one sort of another, I typically think two things: 1) How immensely happy I am that the person in question did not meet an untimely demise. 2) Would it be in bad taste if I suggested to the bearer of the good news that the explanation is no doubt far less "miraculous" than they're alleging? Generally, I err on the side of thinking it's poor taste, which is why I'm glad when I hear someone else speak up about it, or in this case "sing" about it – and especially when it's done in a rather brilliant, informative and entertaining fashion.

Tim Minchin is a comedian, musician, actor and fairly unabashed skeptic of supernatural and paranormal claims. (HT to a good friend for introducing me to his work!) In one bit, Tim talks about being approached by a fellow, "Sam", who claims that his mother was diagnosed with a visual degenerative condition that required surgery, but that she was miraculously healed after their church prayed on her behalf – this being brought as "evidence" for God. This inspired Tim to write a satirical song called "Thank You God," about his now having now “seen the light” as a result of the story.

Here's a sampling of the verses which point out the faulty thinking involved:
The story of Sam's has but a single explanation:
A surgical God who digs on magic operations
No, it couldn't be mistaken attribution of causation
Born of a coincidental temporal correlation
Exacerbated by a general lack of education
Vis-a-vis physics in Sam's parish congregation
No it couldn't be that all these pious people are liars
It couldn't be an artifact of confirmation bias
A product of groupthink,
A mass delusion,
An Emperor's New Clothes-style fear of exclusion

No, it's more likely to be an all-powerful magician
Than the misdiagnosis of the initial condition,
Or one of many cases of spontaneous remission,
Or a record-keeping glitch by the local physician
(See the complete lyrics here.)

What he's saying here is as follows: People offer "miracle" as the one and only explanation, without any awareness that this may be a "mistaken attribution of causation" – i.e. misidentifying the cause and effect. After all, there are so many other possible explanations available which are vastly more reasonable, such as (to use Tim's words):

1. Coincidental temporal correlation – the fact of the prayer and the healing coinciding being simply a... coincidence. After all, think about all the millions of stories that don't get reported, either because nothing discernible happened during or soon after the prayer, or perhaps because the time of prayer actually coincided with the person’s demise rather than their recovery.

2. Lack of scientific education – that people are more likely to report it as a "miracle" because their lack of scientific education makes them more prone to magical thinking.

3. Potential that people are lying – that all or parts of the story are simply a fabrication.

4. Confirmation bias – the fact that people tend to favor explanations that confirm previously held beliefs, i.e. the belief that there is a God who responds to our prayers by working miracles.

5. Groupthink – that although one might cite large numbers of believers as a "proof" that something is real, all this proves is that in groups, people are unlikely to express dissent – even if an idea sounds ill-conceived. Hence the "Emperor's New Clothes-style fear of exclusion" – that people will go along with something ridiculous in order not to be excluded/derided.

6. Mass delusion – again, even though you have a large group, human psychology makes us in fact more apt to subscribe to delusional thinking when others around us believe it.

7. Misdiagnosis – perhaps the person was diagnosed incorrectly at the outset, and so the fact that they’re "healed" of a condition they never actually possessed is certainly no miracle.

8. Spontaneous remission – it's a known phenomenon that occurs on occasion. Statistically improbable? Yes. But someone has to be that "one in a million" after all. Unknown mechanism? Perhaps. But just because we don't necessarily know how something works doesn't make it a "miracle."

9. Record-keeping glitch – someone along the way may have mistakenly recorded the person as having the condition, which then became part of their health history.

Point being, any of these explanations is orders of magnitude more likely, and more logical, than attributing the healing to something "magical" or "supernatural." This is especially so when you add in other factors (which Tim alludes to in other verses), such as the existence of horrible suffering throughout the world. Somehow, children dying of hunger and disease did not merit God's intervention, despite many people's fervent prayers, and yet Sam's mother did. And to make matters worse, there really is no such thing as God not intervening. The same God who performed this rather modest "miracle" is the God who's also very much responsible (by theological implication) for incalculably profound and widespread human suffering.

Does this mean we can't be thrilled when we hear stories of recovery and tremendous good fortune? Of course not. We should be thrilled. Does it mean we should go around mocking people to their faces for not thinking things through properly? Of course not. We need to be decent and kind. But there is a place for education, to help people learn critical reasoning skills – to be able to distinguish between magic and science, fantasy and reality. And of course, there’s also a place for humor – even (or you might say especially) when it's highly irreverent!