|| Misphatim: Is Logic Logical?|
Karl Popper, the Austrian-British philosopher
of science, writes that “Science is not a system of certain, or well-established,
statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of
finality. Our science is not knowledge: it can never claim to have attained
truth, or even a substitute for it….We do not know: we can only guess.
And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though
biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities we can uncover/discover…The
old scientific ideal of episteme—of absolutely certain, demonstrable
knowledge—has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity
makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative
The physicist, Werner Heisenberg showed that in physics laws are at best probabilities.
And the great mathematician, Kurt Goedel demonstrated the same in mathematics.
In his famous Goedel’s Theorem he proves that there exist meaningful mathematical
statements that are neither provable nor disprovable, now or ever. That is,
not simply because human thought or knowledge is insufficiently advanced but
because the very nature of logic renders them incapable of resolution, no
matter how long the human race survives or how wise it becomes. “No axiomatic
system containing arithmetic can demonstrate its own consistency, so we can
never know for sure whether our system is consistent. Any such system must
have true statements which are unprovable within the system.”
You may be surprised, but this principle – that logic is
built on supralogical axioms – is stated in this week’s Torah portion. What
is even more surprising is that the Torah teaches us this invaluable wisdom
with the addition of one single letter.
This week’s portion, Mishpotim, begins with G-d’s words to Moses: “And these
are the laws that you shall put before them.” The Midrash (oral interpretation
of Torah) – cited by the classical Torah commentator, Rashi – explains the
addition of “and (these are the laws).” Wherever it says “V’eileh”
(“and these” - in Hebrew the letter vov at the beginning of a word
means “and”), the word comes to add to that which was before. “And these are
the laws” teach us that just as the first ones were received at Sinai, so
too are these laws from Sinai.
What is the significance of this addition? Why would we think that these laws
were not given at Sinai that the Torah needs to emphasize it with the additional
Because “mishpotim” (the word used here for ‘laws’)
refers to the Torah’s rational and logical laws. The argument could be made
that religious law needs to be received from Sinai, but rational laws can
be initiated by man. Tells us the Torah: No! The foundation of logic is the
letter in the Torah – one and only one letter vov – tells us what the
brilliant thinkers, Popper, Heisenberg, Goedel concluded thousands of years
The logical fact is that true logic is built on the supralogical.
Now the supralogical is not the same as illogical. The illogical is beneath
logic – plain stupidity. Supralogical is above logic, preceding logic. The
most logical thing of all is that something precedes logic.
Why is that the case? Because there is no true absolute basis for morality
if it is created and driven by human logic alone. Anything created by human
logic can be destroyed or altered by the same logic. If morality is based
on consensus and basic human freedoms granted to us by man-made institutions,
those same men can decide to retract those freedoms. “All men are created
equal” the American Founding Fathers declared, because they knew that if the
freedom does not come from the Creator, then it cannot be inalienable. If
King George granted them freedom, than he can choose to take it from them
Now if logic itself is built on supralogical axioms, why
then are we so mesmerized by logic?
The answer is: We aren't. We fake it.
Love, mistakes, passions, all our vices, music, romance, magic -- are all
driven by forces that are beyond the logical.
Why is it then, when it comes to G-d so many people become
so very logical? They demand rational or empirical proof for G-d’s existence?
I always wondered why I resisted the organization argument
when it came to proving the existence of G-d. The argument goes like this:
Anything organized directs us to someone that created that organization. A
building points to an architect. A book to an author. A sonnet to a composer.
How much more so does our universe – which is infinitely more organized than
anything in existence – point to a Creator, a cosmic engineer that put it
all in place.
do so many people reject this argument which seems to be as good a proof as
any in science?
Answer: We don’t reject the argument. We reject its conclusion, its consequences.
G-d implies personal responsibility. If G-d exists that means that I may be
responsible for my behavior – responsible and accountable to G-d and to others.
Suddenly, we become highly logical…
Most of our choices and activities are not determined by
logic alone. Yet, when it comes to G-d we become enamored by logic.
it possible that entire generations of thinkers have denied G-d’s existence
and built philosophies and social systems based on their beliefs – all in
order to conveniently avoid the personal responsibility that G-d demands of
If that is true, what does that say about our political and
economic structures? What kind of security can we expect from a world that
is built on a logic that denies its supralogical axiomatic source?
And while we’re at it (asking some difficult questions),
I might as well add: How often do we use logic to smokescreen our real intentions?
To hide irrational and irresponsible behavior behind rational excuses?
What has all this to do with our times? Plenty.
Despite our unprecedented prosperity, technology, military
might and material successes, we live in a very insecure world. AT the forefront
of our chaos is the increasingly raging debate about the role of faith in
our lives. On one hand, religious fanaticism in the shape of radical Islam
is shaking up the world. On the other extreme, some are clamoring for the
end of faith, seeing it as the source of all evil. Yet, faith seems to be
undergoing a renaissance both in the United States and abroad. As the battles
between religion and science continue to rage, we are challenged to ask the
question whether faith and reason can meet.
With our man-made logical systems and institutions exposed
as inadequate to provide us security and peace – the vov that begins our Torah
portion (“v’eileh”) looms larger than ever. Our man made logical structures
have wandered away from Sinai. They need to reconnect to the mission statement
given at Sinai and reinstated by our Founding Fathers: In G-d We Trust. One
Nation Under G-d.
In an insane world like ours, where innocent suffer and wicked
prosper, a world full of contradictions and paradoxes – we can take comfort
in knowing that the insanity is a result of a logical system refusing to acknowledge
its supralogical Creator. If we cannot sense that G-d is the true reality
of all of existence, and we have the ability to resist it because it makes
us uncomfortable – then it surely makes more sense that our world be insane
True sanity means embracing the world beyond logic.
So let's do something not logical together: Let us defy all the fear and insecurity
around us by passionately embracing our absolute foundation of faith in G-d.
Let us crawl out of our comfort zones and shake up the world a little – with
a revolution of goodness. For every negative thought you have, counter it
with two positive actions. As we witness wild behavior of different sorts,
let it inspire us to go beyond our own norms of kindness. Instead of doing
the logical thing – being overwhelmed by all the uncertainty, or battling
fire with fire, let us transcend our logic and just become better people.
may be the most logical thing we will ever do.
|Robert Rubin, 02/10/2013|
Radical Islam's Interpretation
|Thank you for a terrific article. I believe science and religion are a lot closer than most people want to admit as you point out in aspects in the article. How do we reconcile why radical extremism exists especially where the sons of Ishmael(maybe not all) received the Torah and have a true belief in Avrahom as their father as well. Do you have articles and views as to how this evolved?|
|Mitchel J. Schapira, 02/08/2013|
In G-d we trust, One nation under G-d, not the words nor the sentiments of our founders.
|Your excellent essay hit upon many themes that I have thought deeply about, and I applaud your lucid explanation of the limits of logic. I must, however, take issue with your statement about the words and the sentiments of the founders. The motto of the United States was "E pluribus unum," (Of many, one.) It's a motto that could be used to express the unity of the Jewish people, for which we ferverently pray. "One nation under G-d," is a phrase first used in the 1950's when the Pledge of Allegiance was modified in response to the godless Communists. In this same era, the motto of the U.S. was changed to, "In G-d we trust." My logic and my intuition tell me that the exploitation of these phrases by the religious right will fail the test by which I judge all public policy: "Is it good or bad for the Jews?"|
|ruth housman, 02/08/2013|
Drawing Fire from the LOGS
|I always seem to love your posts. I agree with this, and what you wrote is poetic and beautiful. AND in English IS a connector word, and I love ALL the Anns and Ands in my world. So for VAV which contains AV for Father, and... more... as in G_d is ever and always, "in the wings"... AVES.
I do it with words, and it's coming to me, from G_D. We are all out Sourced. So G_D wrote us all into a most beautiful story, and the apparent, a Parent choice, is for Good, for Mercy, for Acts of Kindness, and so, whatever one believes, turn another "leaf" and work towards an end surely we can all agree upon. As LOVE. And I hear AV in LOVE itself. a handshake in friendship, ruth
|Irwin Harelick, 03/06/2007|
Dear rabbi Jacobson,
Thank you for your clear and brilliant exposition on logic and its limits as a tool for the attainment of truth. Philosophers have believed for centuries that we can rely neither on the senses nor on reason to discover reality. While I agree with your assertion that logic cannot be used to prove or disprove the existence of G-d, I respectfully disagree with many of your other conclusions.
You refer to the laws set forth in Mishpotim as "rational and logical". I disagree. I believe most of these laws (humane treatment of slaves, respect for parents, kindness to strangers and the weak and disadvantaged) are honored in all civilized societies because they feel right. This widely held feeling may come from a divine spark within us or maybe not; we just don't know.
After rightly pointing out our supralogical pursuits of love, music, etc. you ask "Why is it then, when it comes to G-d so many people become so very logical?..."
I believe it's because the free-thinking minorities have been oppressed for thousands of years by the G-d fearing majority. Their feelings or intuition tell them there is no G-d and they have been made to feel wicked or stupid and have even been tortured and killed. Finally in a small part of the world they have been granted the freedoms of religion and speech. They are simply saying "I don't believe it and I should not be required to believe it. If you want to convince me, prove it."
I believe your "organization argument" is flawed. If a building points to an architect and the world points to a creator, the obvious next question is: who created the creator? It also does not support the notion that G-d is just, benevolent, etc. In fact one could easily find myriad examples to make the opposite argument.
I don't agree with your assertion that "If G-d exists that means that I may be responsible for my behavior – responsible and accountable to G-d and to others."
If an omniscient, omnipotent G-d is my creator how am I responsible for anything? Was I not created exactly as I am and placed in a G-d created environment which may have further influenced my behavior? I know that Judaism argues that G-d somehow granted us free choice in spite of his omnipotence. But this seems to me to be illogical (not supralogical: the assertion that G-d is omnipotent but man's behavior is not within G-d's control is a contradiction).
My criticism notwithstanding, I heartily support your concluding statement - "As we witness wild behavior of different sorts, let it inspire us to go beyond our own norms of kindness. Instead of doing the logical thing – being overwhelmed by all the uncertainty, or battling fire with fire, let us transcend our logic and just become better people."
I look forward to hearing your response.
Thank you for your kind words and for your comments.
In response -- briefly:
1) The laws in Mishpotim, which essentially are a civic, moral code, are considered "rational and logical" because they could have been conceived of by humans as an ethical system for co-existence (even if G-d had not commanded them), as opposed to the Torah laws called "eidus," which include the commemorative laws (like Shabbos, Passover etc.) and "chukim," which refer to the supra-rational laws (like kosher, the red heifer etc.).
2) You write: << I believe your "organization argument" is flawed. If a building points to an architect and the world points to a creator, the obvious next question is: who created the creator?>> -- a) Just because you don't have an answer to "who created the creator" doesn't mean that the building doesn't point to an architect! b) Perhaps we cannot understand the Creator, precisely because He is the Creator and we are the creatures. c) I say "perhaps" euphemistically, because being a Creator means that G-d's existence is unlike any we can ever fathom. Jewish thinkers and mystics discuss at length the "nature" of the "non-existential" existence of G-d (in Maimonides terms), and how His "being" is one that is true from within and not from without, i.e. G-d is an existence that justifies itself, unlike our existence which is only justified once we are placed here. For more on this I suggest the chapter on G-d in my book, Toward a Meaningful Life.
3) You write << I don't agree with your assertion that "If G-d exists that means that I may be responsible for my behavior – responsible and accountable to G-d and to others." If an omniscient, omnipotent G-d is my creator how am I responsible for anything? Was I not created exactly as I am and placed in a G-d created environment which may have further influenced my behavior? I know that Judaism argues that G-d somehow granted us free choice in spite of his omnipotence. But this seems to me to be illogical (not supralogical: the assertion that G-d is omnipotent but man's behavior is not within G-d's control is a contradiction). >>
If G-d created us, which implies design and purpose, then logic dictates that we have responsibility to live up to the purpose for which we were created. regarding the question of Divine omniscience and omnipotence -- hundreds of pages have been written about this as well, and this space is hardly sufficient to go into the elaborate discussions on the topic. Suffice it to say, as Maimonides writes, if man’s actions were not freely chosen, “how could G-d command us through the prophets ‘Do this’ and ‘Do not do this,’ ‘Improve your ways’ and ‘Do not follow your wickedness’...? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G-d punish the wicked and reward the righteous...?”
Here is a link to our website section Free Choice, http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/concepts/ which discusses the seeming contradiction between free will and Divine omnipotence.
Obviously you can choose not to agree with or follow the Torah approach to life, but the context of my writing is based on the Torah approach as an axiom. To address -- with no axioms -- the general issue of free will or for that matter, the "nature" of G-d's existence, deserves an entirely other scope of dialogue, one that needs to first establish the issue of G-d in general, then the idea of design and purpose and then the role of man in the process.
As you know that every discussion needs to first establish assumptions and axioms, or else we will go nowhere.
4) Overall may I add that I appreciate your questions and comments, and would strongly suggest that you pursue these issues further by looking into the vast Torah literature on these respective topics. I wuld be happy to direct you tomore readings if you so wish.
Thank you again for writing and for your kind remarks.
Blessings and best wishes,
|Alex Goldring, 02/22/2007|
I would pose one question: are you really asserting that Sinai was a religious experience and that the principles given there are "religious laws"? Please answer.
I am not sure what you mean by a religious experience, but how would you categorize the following description of the events at Sinai --
"There was thunder and lightning in the morning, with a heavy cloud on the mountain, and an extremely loud blast of a ram's horn. The people in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward the Divine Presence... Mount Sinai was all in smoke because of the Presence that had come down on it. G-d was in the fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a lime kiln. The entire mountain trembled violently. There was the sound of a ram's horn, increasing in volume to a great degree. Moses spoke, and G-d replied with a Voice" (Exodus 19:16-19). "All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram's horn, and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance" (20:15). "They saw what is ordinarily heard, and they heard what is ordinarily seen" (Mechilta on the verse). "They saw a vision of the G-d of Israel and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear sky" (24:11). "To the Israelites the appearance of G-d's glory on the mountaintop was like a devouring flame" (24:17). "G-d showed us His glory and greatness" (Deuteronomy 5:21).
Being that this is the only record we have of Sinai, it clearly was a very mystical experience -- even based on the Biblical verses alone. When you read the commentaries and the Midrashim and especially Kabbalah -- you discover how profund this mystical experience actually was.
Thank you for responding. My allusion was to your statement that "religious laws" were given on Sinai. I would think that Sinai was an experience, and given its quality, it was a spiritual one, or as you put it a mystical one. As to the laws they were universal in nature, which would beg the parochial aspect of a religion.