Friday, July 22, 2011

What Diax's Rake omits

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.


  1. proof is such a loaded word-eye witness testimony is often a great example of One believing a thing simply because he wishes it were true. can you prove tat the world wasn't created one second ago and all our memories were implanted? that space aliens did not seed the earth?

    one of my newer mottos is "all facts are theory based"
    Joel Rich

  2. "Proof" means deriving a conclusion from a self of self-evident givens.

    Often those givens are themselves only known because a trusted authority told you about them. E.g. our belief that the world spins rather than the son goes around it. Most of us never did the math ourselves, and I think many of us don't even know how the arguments for heliocentrism go.

    Thus, a proof based on concept of a heliocentric solar system is actually shakier than an appeal to mesorah, because it too appeals to authority -- and then adds logical steps which may or may not be in order.

    Other times the givens come from personal observation. E.g. the sun at midday is yellow.

    So a proof has the combined weakness in all its givens, PLUS giving us room to err in the steps of reasoning that combine them.

    Assuming your trust of each authority is roughly equal.

    People pick which postulates to accept based on which fit their experience. IOW, I don't think people trust mesorah because it's mesorah. They trust is because the first-hand experience of obeying or studying the results mesorah gives us, eg hilkhos Shabbos, argue that the mesorah should be trusted. The fact that jumping through hoops to make a cup of tea is part of a Shabbos experience that gives meaning to me; or the fact that lomdus can produce such elegant results.

    If this weren't true, I wouldn't place trust in mesorah. Just as I am sure there is a hole in any proof of something that contradicts my personal observation.

    Two people with different experiences will accept different sets of postulates. If this difference is wide, they will be able to justify (by proof, by trusting authority, by observation, by...) different things.

    More so, I think this is how all religious decision-making is, in fact, done.

    I have a number of posts on this. For example, why are we more likely to accept R' Aqiva's retort that if you believe in a weaver given the garment, you must believe in a Creator given the world, than we are some rigorous equivalent involving automaton theory and informational (in contrast to thermodynamic) entropy?


  3. As Joel Rich indicates, I've never really found an argument for scepticism regarding religion which didn't lead me to scepticism regarding everything, even to solipsism. I'm constantly surprised by militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens who nevertheless have strong political views, even though these are often as unprovable as religious ones. According to Wikipedia, Hitchens describes himself as "no longer a socialist, but... a Marxist" and if that's not believing something not proven - even disproven - what is?

    And of course Thomas Kuhn has shown that science does not proceed in the linear way that positivists like Richard Dawkins claim.

    That said, science is in theory more easily proven than religion, because I can (if I want) try to run the experiments again to see for myself whether they work; I can't re-run matan Torah.

    The argument from tradition relies on the assumption that previous generations had the same critical thinking skills, and the same understanding of what concepts like matan Torah meant as I do. This may be true (one may look at the Talmud, for example, and see it as evidence for both assumptions), but it is an assumption and should be recognised as such. That said, it is a part of my belief structure too.

    I have not read Anathem, but it sounds somewhat like A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I reviewed here. You may enjoy it too.

  4. I'd love to hear any other insights you have had after reading Anathem. I think it's one of my favorite novels.

    There's a lot of opportunity to compare the experience of an Avout to that of a frum Jew, in terms of following a discipline, being seen as an outsider, meeting other Avout with a very different spin on the same basic discipline, etc.

  5. Joel-
    He does go into that issue in the book, actually. He uses "Gardan's Steelyard" - a version of Occam's Razor - to address that.

    So perhaps Diax's Rake demands that you actually do re-visit and question those givens, that nothing be taken for granted?
    Reductio ad absurdum would argue that this is impossible, but I'm not sure that's a reason to reject it as a philosophical approach.

    Agreed re: the argument from tradition, and I do want to get to Canticle for Leibowitz. Unfortunately, I just picked up The Prime Ministers as my new book, and I'm going to be on that for a while...

    True, although the same would hold for any other member of a discipline.

  6. I suppose you're right. This may be the only novel I've read that's set inside a highly cloistered monastic order.

  7. The rake omits the huge topic of epistomology. There are valid justifications of belief other than proof. The whole thing is nonsensical to someone who spent a little time studying the subject.

    See the survey of various justification systems on wikopedia.

  8. Micha-
    The best I can tell you is to read his novel. I'm digesting a book of many hundreds of pages to a couple of lines in a blog post; hardly justice to his work.

  9. There are two problems with your objection, as I see it:

    The first is that Diax's Rake does not say that you cannot believe in things that you wish were true; it simply says you should not *only* believe in them because you wish they were true. It's a reminder that you will naturally be pulled toward arguments that appeal to what you want to be true and so those arguments deserve perhaps even more thorough examination than the alternatives. Our universe would probably consider it a caution against confirmation bias.

    Secondly, argument by authority is really not a good answer for the problem Diax's Rake is attempting to resolve, because the very problem it addresses is the manner in which one selects one's sources, more than the sources themselves. It's fine that you trust the people in question, but how do you know you can trust what they know? I love and trust my wife completely, but that doesn't automatically transition into an expectation that everything she ever says will prove to be correct. What it does mean is that I know her so well I know roughly what she should be able to know, and how she would have come to know it, and how I could probably verify it.

    For thousands of years, after all, it was received tradition from authorities people trusted that the earth was flat and the sun moved around it, and we all know how that panned out. Diax's Rake would have come into play when people were compelled to choose between what they wanted to be true (that their parents and their parents in turn were correct) and what could be demonstrated to be true (ships slowly vanishing over the horizon, retrograde motion, angles of shadows, and so on).

  10. Ratspaw-
    Thanks for commenting. I don't see myself as objecting to the Rake, as much as expressing my difficulty with accepting it wholesale.

    Re: Your comments - I agree with your first point, but I would differ with the second. I'm not describing argument from authority, but argument from witness. Where authority may well have limits to its deductions, witness sees what witness sees, and trust is needed only in ensuring that the witness is limiting himself to what he experienced, and reporting it accurately.