Rabbi Adam Jacobs’ Odd Relationship with Logic

Over at the “good” ol’ Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs of the Aish Center in Manhattan has been posting rather frequently lately on subjects of interest to atheists. He’s swung and missed a few times already, but two days ago he somehow managed to hit himself in the head with the bat.

In his first atheism-related article on HuffPo, An Open Letter to the Atheist Community, Rabbi Jacobs pulls the old “there are no true atheists” card, claiming that an atheist would have to know everything about the universe to know there is no God. He then goes on to ask if we could “be open to the possibility that religion isn’t inherently bad” (which says nothing about whether or not a god exists), then tries to appeal to our assumed affection for Darwin and in the process implies that anyone who accepts evolution is probably an atheist.

In his second article, he claims to be surprised to learn that there really are quite a few true atheists, that there are many different conceptions of atheism, and that so many atheists feel persecuted and harassed for their beliefs – and regarding the latter, that he “can state with complete honesty that, prior to these exchanges, [he] had never heard about this before.” In the first article he claimed that he’d spent a sizable portion of his life as an atheist, so I can only assume that he’s tweaking the truth a bit here. Either he wasn’t an out-of-the-closet atheist or he’s being quite a bit less than completely honest about what he has just learned.

He goes on to make a promise:

I want to have a meaningful and open dialogue in which all participants feel respected and valued for our common humanity despite our obvious differences.

If this were true, I’d be in favor of it. But as you’ll see later, the Rabbi appears to be totally uninterested in having a dialogue about the things atheism actually logically entails.

His third article is just silly. In A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence, he basically says that if there is no evidence against a supernatural creator, then it’s reasonable to believe in one. This is an interesting bit of wordplay, actually. He opens by responding to atheists’ criticism that religious arguments lack reason, but then eventually works his way toward a conclusion he considers reasonable. Reasoned and reasonable are not nearly the same thing, but he’s trying to use them interchangeably. It may well be perfectly reasonable to take a position that isn’t reasoned, but if the good Rabbi wishes to make an argument that will pass muster with most logically-minded atheists, he’ll have to come up with something a good deal better than a glorified version of “you can’t prove I’m wrong.”

Rabbi Jacobs’ latest article – Atheism’s Odd Relationship with Morality – really takes the cake.

He begins with light praise of parts of Sam Harris’ TED talk, Science can Answer Moral Questions – specifically, the parts where Sam criticizes the Taliban’s treatment of women, the antics of street corner preachers, and the encroachment of oversensitive political correctness into the discussion of important issues.

But then he launches into a full-on assault on what he perceives to be the typical atheist’s position:

The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious “self” and that there is no objective right or wrong. As Dr. Will Provine has said, “[as an atheist] you give up hope that there is an imminent morality … you can’t hope for there being any free will [and there is] … no ultimate foundation for ethics.”

While I actually agree that there is no ultimate (i.e., transcendent) foundation for ethics, that reality is blind and without intent, and that free will is mostly illusory, the idea that we can therefore have no objective concept of right or wrong is just ridiculous. If the whole of humanity agreed that something was wrong, for example, then it would be objectively wrong, because we’re the ones defining what “wrong” means in the first place. This argument is like saying that without a transcendent standard of “yellow,” we can’t tell if something is blue or yellow. Of course we can, and it’s all about how we define things.

He then attacks Harris’ idea that “human thriving” is the goal of morality, claiming that it’s subjective and that since “the Taliban might very well believe that they are the pinnacle of human civilization,” we can’t possibly say what the best goal looks like. In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam addresses this criticism rather well, pointing out that much like how the existence of different ideas about scientific concepts doesn’t mean we can’t figure out what’s true, the existence of different ideas about how to go about achieving human thriving doesn’t mean we can’t figure out the best ways to do it. I wish that the Rabbi had read Sam’s book, or even a single response he’s made to his critics; instead, Rabbi Jacobs is repeating criticisms lodged against Harris several times over already.

He goes on:

Either way, why exactly does he care? What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another?

Essentially, Rabbi Jacobs is saying that atheists shouldn’t care about morality, because we’re just matter. Well, Rabbi, I hate to break it to you, but whether you believe it or not, we are all random collections of electrons. That’s reality. It cares about as much for what you think of it as gravity does.

On the subject of free will:

Furthermore, if there is no such thing as free will, then what sense does it make to blame anyone for any action whatsoever? “I felt like it” or “I couldn’t help myself” should be considered perfectly reasonable defenses to any “wrong-doing.” In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way.

I hate to burst your bubble, Rabbi, but if there is no free will, then we have no choice about assigning blame, either. Free will is not about being free to choose whatever you want to do; free will is about the ghost in the machine – a non-physical, uncaused cause that can alter the physical system so that it’s non-deterministic and can do things that aren’t predictable even in principle.

And the idea that atheism logically leads to lawlessness and selfishness is a little funny. It makes me wonder what the Rabbi was like back when he “was” an atheist, because this really sounds like projection to me. Maybe he had these sorts of impulses, but I don’t, and most people I know don’t.

I’m curious to learn why he thinks atheism would logically lead to this. I am an atheist. I don’t believe there are any gods. I’m also an anti-theist – I believe that some gods most definitely don’t exist – that they couldn’t exist. I believe that the universe as we see it is what a universe looks like without a god. Therefore, the fact that we do have empathy and morality isn’t a problem for me at all; these things developed in a godless universe, and they’re questions in need of investigation, not worldview-shaking conundrums. Logically, I think there’s a naturalistic explanation for empathy and morality. This is the conclusion that follows from the premises (1) the universe is purely natural, and (2) we observe empathetic and moral behavior. The conclusion “we should abandon moral reasoning if there is no transcendent source of morality” is a complete non-sequitur.

Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

I wish people would actually read The Selfish Gene, rather than bang on about the title as if they know what it means. It is our genes that are selfishly struggling on to promote themselves. This has nothing to do with human selfishness. In fact, it has nothing to do with humanity at all. All genes are selfish; they function solely to promote their propagation, and all the forms of life that carry them are essentially just useful hosts.

It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.

Oh, dear… this again. The old “there is no possible meaning but transcendent meaning” chestnut. Yes, the universe is blind, purposeless, and ultimately, transcendently meaningless. But that’s because meaning isn’t inherent; meaning is given. There is nothing to give meaning to the universe. But we’re the only things that care about meaning, and we’re able to give our lives meaning (for as long as we’re around, and maybe a bit after), so this doesn’t bother me. If all of humanity were snuffed out, there would be nobody left to care that our existence no longer had meaning. But as long as we’re around, we can have meaningful, fulfilling lives.

The Rabbi goes on to drop this huge stinker, while patting himself on the back:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Okay… and? Even if that were true, what’s your point? Chemistry emerged out of alchemy. Should we therefore thank alchemists for everything chemistry has given us? This is nothing but the genetic fallacy at work. It doesn’t matter where the idea originated. What matters is where the idea is now. And let me tell you, most of the “Judeo-Christian” (whatever that actually means) community aren’t developing their concept of morality beyond the dictates of a 2,000-year-old book. The moral philosophy has developed in spite of religious dogma, not because of it. Even religious concepts of what is moral and immoral have changed in spite of the dogma. Jews, for example, no longer feel entitled to make slaves of the people of neighboring nations.

You can’t have it both ways. If one has embraced the worldview that embraces amorality, then it would be logical to admit that one’s personal morality is based on subjective preferences and comforting fiction or to recuse oneself from discussions (and lectures) on the topic.

My worldview doesn’t embrace amorality. It embraces a sense of morality which the Judeo-Christian worldview has hijacked and claimed ownership. I need not believe in some transcendent, supernatural being to be able to employ this morality, and I need not concern myself with whether or not there is some transcendent meaning behind moral choices. My morality is based on what promotes the well being of other human beings and what will help create the kind of world I would like to live in regardless of where my place was in society.

Rabbi Jacobs seems to be abusing the word “logical” in the same annoying way that Sam Harris (for all his good points) abuses “clearly” – i.e, to say that it sounds reasonable to him and he can’t imagine a valid counterargument. My advice to the dear Rabbi: work on your imagination.

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