A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem. It was mostly a good read, although there were definite portions in which I wondered where the editors had gone; dragging is not a strong enough word.
Stephenson's depiction of a universe (or, to use his term, cosmos) in which theoretical science advances without a practical arm, in which the nature of the laws of reality is itself a debate between schools, and in which theoretical science is conducted with what we would recognize as religious discipline and devotion (complete with a sort of monkhood, savants in place of saints, and rituals which would be at home in a church), is fascinating.
[I did think his Ita were an attempt at a Middle Ages European caricature of the Jew, with the relationship between the Ita and the avout throughout the story approximating what may/should have happened between Jew and Christian when the walls of the ghetto came down in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not sure how I feel about that.]
I have many thoughts on the book and its ideas, but right now I'm thinking about Diax's Rake, which is a stark and challenging rule: One should not believe a thing simply because he wishes it were true. [I see that this site links it to an idea of Thucydides.]
The book presents conflict between those who believe what they can prove (theors), and those who believe what they wish (enthusiasts). Diax's Rake (named for the rake used by the legendary Diax when chasing enthusiasts out of a shrine to logic and science) amplifies Stephen Hawking's recent pronouncement that heaven is a "fairy story" for people who are "afraid of the dark." As Diax would have put it: You can't prove there is a heaven – so you lack the right to believe it.
Left with this binary system, dividing the universe into proven and unproven, I would be forced to drop my belief in Judaism. I cannot prove most of the 'facts' set forth by Judaism – the existence of Gd, the creation of the world ex nihilo, the presentation of Torah at Sinai, the validity of the prophets, the existence of an afterlife, and so on.
But there is a third possibility, beyond logic and desire: Received tradition, believing in something because another person, whose account you trust, was able to prove it and relayed it to you. I believe in Sinai because the story of its experience [and I equate experience with proof] has been passed down in a chain of tradition I trust. I believe in prophecy because the stories about it have been passed down in a chain of tradition I trust. And so on.
I'm not proving anything, but I'm also not believing on the basis of a wish. I'm believing the accounts of others.
In a sense, believing in the accounts of others isn't really different from the theor believing in an idea that was already proved by some great thinker, without needing to demonstrate the proof himself. But I see it as different, because in the realm of theors it is given that the theory could be replicated today, and in the realm of religious tradition it could not.
Much to think about here. On the whole, a very interesting and challenging read. I recommend it.