Living up to Truth, Ch. III - Belief and Action

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Living Up to Truth
by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb
2nd Revised Edition

Title Page | Author's Preface | Translater's Forward
I - The Relevance of Religion | II - Religion: Pragmatism or Truth? | III - Belief and Action: Criteria for Responsible Decision | IV - True Predictions | V - Archeology | VI - Revelation and Miracles - the Kuzari Principle | VII - Jewish Survival - the Fact and its Implications | VIII - Summary and Conclusion



Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7

The Torah presents itself as a system with a variety of virtues: It is beautiful, inspiring, challenging, moral, profound, sensitizing, et cetera; and it is also true. Here I am going to deal only with truth. All the rest is correct, but I'm not going to deal with that. I am limiting myself to dealing solely with the question of truth. The responsibility to investigate truth is one by which we are bound; it is something that is required of us. Here I am going to try to fulfill that responsibility.

First of all, when I talk about the Torah being true, I am limiting myself to the descriptive parts of the Torah. Some parts of the Torah are not candidates for truth. There is poetry, all sorts of commands, prescriptions, and so on. Whether they are true or false is a very nice philosophical question, but I am going to side-step it. We are talking now only about the descriptive part of the Torah, that is to say, the portion of the Torah which describes facts: This is how the world came into being; these historical events took place including perhaps miraculous historical events, prophecy, revelation, wars, famines, migrations; this is the nature of the human being; this is the nature of the soul; these are the predictions for the future, e.g. the coming of the Messiah, what happens after death; these are the forces that affect human history; this is the way in which G-d interacts with man and so on. These are all statements which are presented as descriptions of facts. Our question will be: What reason is there to accept them as being true?

However, much experience has taught me that to start an investigation into the truth of Judaism is fruitless without agreeing first on our standard of truth. Because, when I present considerations, evidence, arguments, and justifications, and we don't agree upon the standards by which those arguments should be evaluated, we end up arguing at cross purposes to one another.

What standards should we have for verifying these purported truths? There is a standard due to Descartes that is subject to much discussion, a standard for knowing anything. Descartes said that to know something means to be able to absolutely refute any conceivable alternative. If I claim that I know A, to substantiate my claim to know A I have to be able to defeat any alternative absolutely. So that if I claim to know A, you can defeat my claim to know A if you can propose another alternative B. All B has to have to qualify is to simply be possible. If I can't eliminate B, and eliminate it absolutely, then I should withdraw my claim to know A. That is the Cartesian standard.

Now, I am going to reject that standard and I'm going to reject it on two grounds. This will be very important because all of us have to a certain extent absorbed the Cartesian standard almost as a matter of instinct. When someone puts forth a claim to know something, or puts forth an argument or puts forth evidence, the natural response is to try to defeat it based on the Cartesian standard. ("But isn't it still possible that something else is true?") So, it is important for us to agree at the outset that we are rejecting the Cartesian standard.

The first reason for rejecting the Cartesian standard is that if you really live by that standard, you don't know anything! Any claim to knowledge can be defeated by using the strict Cartesian standard. Descartes himself worried about this. How do you know that you are not dreaming at the present moment? What could you do to prove to yourself, absolutely, that you are not dreaming right now? Pinch yourself? Couldn't you pinch yourself in a dream? Could you prove to yourself that in three minutes you won't wake up and find yourself in the twenty-first century saying to yourself: "Ah, that's what I get for reading historical books. I dreamt myself back one hundred years to some crazy place with inadequate air conditioning," and so on. Now according to the Cartesian standard you don't know that you are awake because here is an alternative, a conceivable alternative, that you are really sleeping. You cannot eliminate it absolutely and therefore you do not know that you are awake.

[Of course, Descartes thought he could prove that (most of the time) we are really not sleeping. But today no one credits his proof - we cannot prove that we are not sleeping.]

Bertrand Russell's example was to ask whether you know that the Universe is really more than five minutes old. Five minutes old. So you say, well of course I remember what happened to me yesterday. But, the suggestion is that you came into existence five minutes ago with those memories programmed into your brain. So you say: "Well look, I have a tape of the concert of the Grateful Dead, and this is a forty-five minute tape, so there must have been at least a forty-five minute concert to tape it from." The answer is of course no, the world came into existence five minutes ago with the tape and its magnetic impressions already on it. "But look, there are partially decayed deposits of Uranium, and next to the Uranium itself are the standard decay products in the normal proportions." Again, the suggestion is that this happened five minutes ago with the decay products placed next to the Uranium with the correct proportions. So, here is a conceivable alternative. You think the universe is millions, or billions of years old. The conceivable alternative that the universe is but five minutes old, having come into existence with all those features which you think are evidence of greater age. You can't eliminate it absolutely. So, according to Descartes then, you don't know that the universe is more than five minutes old!

You can go on with just about everything that you believe, and if you have a good enough imagination, you can think up some alternative which you can't eliminate absolutely, and you can defeat every claim to knowledge. So, the Cartesian standard to knowledge is fruitless. It is hopeless. It deprives us of everything that we think we know. Since Descartes started this game, for the last 350 years people have been trying to think up a different standard, a different criterion for knowledge. There is no accepted answer to Descartes except the judgment that he is surely wrong, and that we will someday find an acceptable standard. That is one reason for rejecting the Cartesian standard of knowledge.


We are investigating the truth of the descriptive portions of the Torah. The first step is to agree on the standard by which evidence will be evaluated. The Cartesian standard is: to know anything we must eliminate every alternative possibility absolutely. One reason for rejecting this standard is that it wrongly implies that we know almost nothing.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7

There is another reason which applies more specifically to religion. Whatever is the case in making up our minds about theoretical knowledge, when we consider life, when we come to making practical choices, we have a quite different standard for making those decisions in a responsible fashion. The standard we employ in making responsible decisions is high probability vis-a-vis alternatives. If I have to decide what to do, and I know that what I do depends on my circumstances - i.e., what the facts are - and I don't know the facts for sure, I investigate until I have high probability of one alternative vis-a-vis other alternatives, and then I act on it. If I do so I have acted responsibly, and if I don't do so I have acted irresponsibly.

This is true for all of my decisions: what profession to master, where to live, whom to marry, what to do with my spare cash, how to handle my health and so forth. In all cases, for myself, and especially when I owe you something, you expect me to act responsibly with respect to the obligation that I have to you. That is the standard up to which I am held. I cannot plead that I didn't have a Cartesian proof and that is why I didn't act.

So, for example, I borrow your car, and you tell me: "Listen, you can use the car, but you should know that the brakes might have a problem. So, if you hear a squeak or something, take it to the garage and have it fixed before you have an accident." Then you go off for a month's trip. You come back and you notice that sitting in front of your house is what once was your car. Now it looks like an accordion - folded. So you ask me what happened, and I say: "Well, I had an accident - the brakes slipped." You say to me: "But, I warned you. I told you that the brakes might be weak. Did they squeak?" I reply: "Yes, they did squeak." You ask me: "Well, did you take them in to be fixed?" I reply: "No, I didn't take them in to be fixed." You ask me: "Why not?" and I tell you: "Well, it is still possible that the squeak didn't mean that the brakes were weak. It's possible that the squeak was caused by a loose spring or something else. I didn't have any proof that it was the brakes."

I don't think that you would be amused! So I didn't have any proof, but the probability was that it was the brakes. After all, you told me that they were probably weak, and we know that weak brakes squeak. Given the information that I had, the alternative with the greatest probability was that it was the brakes. I certainly should have taken it in to get it fixed! When I have a decision to make, the responsible way to make the decision is on the basis of the highest probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives.

Now, the key point here is that religion is both a matter of theoretics (Is there a G-d?, Did He reveal himself at Sinai?, Did He create the world in such and such a fashion?, What is the nature of the soul?) and a matter of decision. Religion is in part a matter of how one chooses to live. Soon it will be the Sabbath. You will have to decide, shall I light up a cigarette or shall I not light up a cigarette. During the week you will have to decide, shall I have a cheeseburger or shall I not have a cheeseburger. These are life decisions. The criterion for making a life decision responsibly is to make the decision on the basis of high probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives. A person who waits for the Cartesian standard to be fulfilled, a person who waits for an absolute refutation of all possible alternatives, is a person who is not behaving responsibly.

Imagine a doctor. You go to the doctor with a terrible pain in your lower right abdomen. The doctor says: "Is this appendicitis or isn't it appendicitis? Look, it could be an attack of nerves. It could be an ulcer. It could be psychosomatic. It could be all sorts of things. Do I have any proof that it's appendicitis? I don't have any proof. It could be all sorts of things." Meanwhile, the person dies of a ruptured appendix. What would you say? We would say that he is irresponsible. You don't wait for any proof if you have high probability of the truth vis-a-vis the alternatives. That is what determines responsible action.

So, whatever is the case with respect to theoretics, let others worry about that. We are people living our lives and making decisions. In particular, we have to make decisions about religion. If so, the decision needs to be made on the basis of high probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives, and therefore that is going to be our standard. When I argue that Judaism is true, or argue that some particular aspect of Judaism is true, I feel I have fulfilled my responsibility if I have argued that it has the highest probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives.

For example, I will be arguing in favor of a certain proposition A, and I will present my evidence and someone will say: "I see your evidence, but isn't it still conceivable that A is still false, even in light of the evidence?" My answer will be: "Yes, it is conceivable. We are not trying to defeat every conceivable alternative. We are only trying to defeat other alternatives which are more probable than A. It is not enough to defeat A by thinking up something conceivable. That is too easy and is not to the point. What someone has to think up is a competitor to A which has more positive evidence in its favor than A does. That is much more difficult."

Here is another way of seeing this point. Suppose someone takes the position of a skeptic. (Some say that this is what Socrates did.) "I really don't know what the truth is. But you say that you do know. Well I am prepared to listen. Tell me what you think the truth is, and why you think it is the truth. I am prepared to be convinced if you can prove it. I am not going to accept what you believe just because you believe it - there are too many different beliefs for that. But if you can prove it, I will agree." So you present your evidence, your proof, and his response is: "That doesn't really prove it because something else still could be true."

Now what is wrong with the skeptic? What is wrong is that he puts all the burden of proof on you. What we need to do is be skeptical of his skepticism! If I present some positive evidence that my belief is true, it is not enough for him to merely point out that it might still be false: he has to present positive evidence that it is false. The mere fact that it might be false is not enough for him to reject it. His absolute skepticism - his demand for absolute proof - is unjustified and unreasonable. The reason that it is unjustified is that we are looking for evidence which justifies action. We should ask the skeptic: "All right - we gave positive evidence of truth. If you had to act, would that evidence suffice? Sure, what we believe could still be false. But the evidence is strong enough to require us to act as if it were true. And if you did not act this way, you would be acting irresponsibly. That is enough for us."


The second reason for rejecting the Cartesian standard for knowledge is that religion is a matter of how we act, and we justify action in terms of the highest probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives. Thus to attack a particular proposition for which we provide evidence, it is not enough just to present a possible alternative. One must present an alternative with greater positive evidence.

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Now there is one natural response to this argument. I will present it and rebut it. The one natural response goes as follows: A person says: "Look, if I claimed to believe in G-d you could ask me how I know; namely, what evidence I have, what proof I have, what kind of justifications I have. If I claim to be an Atheist, you could also ask me how I know; namely, how do I know there is no G-d, what kind of proof do I have, what kind of evidence do I have? But, I don't claim anything. You see, I protect myself from demands like that. I don't claim to know that there is a G-d, and I don't claim to know that there is not a G-d. I am an Agnostic. As an Agnostic, I freely admit my ignorance. Together with Socrates, I claim that I don't know. Surely you cannot ask me to justify that! What should I justify, not knowing something? I simply don't know. I am at least honest enough to admit that I don't know. How then can you ask me to make justifications, proofs and arguments when I'm simply confessing my ignorance?"

That observation is a mistake, or perhaps I should say that it is misleading. It is true that intellectually, in terms of belief, there are three possible positions with respect to any particular assertion. I can either believe A, I can disbelieve A, or I can be in doubt over A and neither believe it nor disbelieve it. That is how it is in terms of belief, but, in terms of action, there are not three positions. There are only two positions. You either act as if A were true or you act as if A were false. There is no middle position.

Maybe you can say with respect to the Torah being true: "I don't know, maybe it is true and maybe it isn't true. I really haven't made up my mind. I really haven't sorted out the issues. I don't know." But, six days from now you will either smoke the cigarette during the Sabbath, or you will not smoke the cigarette during the Sabbath. There is no third middle ground that I'll neither smoke it nor not smoke it. There is no middle ground. You either live as if it were true or you don't live as if it were true which means that you are forced to make a decision. There is no escape from making a choice. Now, with respect to that choice, you can be asked to justify yourself. You could be asked to justify your action. Because it is a choice, the justification must be based on the highest probability vis-a-vis alternatives.

To take a simple example, let's say there is an unsubstantiated rumor that the Arabs have put poison into the water supply of Jerusalem. Now, it is only a rumor, but it is after all a rumor. Those types of rumors don't surface every day. You then ask someone what he thinks about this rumor, and he says: "Well, I really don't know, I am an agnostic. I don't know whether it is true or false. After all, I don't know who started or spread the rumor. It hasn't been substantiated." As he is telling you this he goes over to the sink, draws himself a glass of water out of the tap and drinks it down. Now, he may say that he hasn't made up his mind, but the truth is that he must have made up his mind or he wouldn't have drunk the water!

Your actions commit you to one position or the other position vis-a-vis the proposition even if you say that you are intellectually neutral. Most people, the vast majority of people, use agnosticism simply as a dodge. It is very rare to meet an agnostic who takes precautions. The agnostic eats his cheeseburger on Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of judgment in which the Jewish people are required to fast) while at the beach without a thought. His agnosticism is simply a way to protect himself against criticism. "You are asking me to justify myself and I don't make any claims and therefore I am free to eat the cheeseburger." It is not quite that simple.

If you really don't know whether religion is true or false, that ought to show itself in some kind of positive behavior. Perhaps taking some precautions, or perhaps mounting a serious investigation, and in the meantime, during the investigation, maybe playing it safe by not eating the cheeseburger. It is very rare to find an agnostic who does this, which means that either the agnosticism is just a pose, or it is the result of a real intellectual confusion. The person thinks: "Since I am an Agnostic, therefore I do not have to do anything." That is not correct as you see from any example where a person would be an agnostic about something that made a difference. If you were an Agnostic about the poisoned water, you would not drink it!

It would seem that if one really were a true Agnostic, he would logically have to live his life religiously. Let me bring this point home to you as follows. Some of you may have heard of Pascal's Wager. He used the following type of analysis. Christianity is either true or false, and I don't know. If Christianity is true and you live it, you go to heaven. If Christianity is true and you don't live it then you go to hell. A positive infinity and a negative infinity. If Christianity is false and you don't live it, so you get a certain finite benefit - you did away with certain unnecessary restrictions on your life. If Christianity is false and you do live it, then you have a certain finite loss - you lived according to restrictions which were unnecessary. So, he said, clearly it is to your benefit to live Christianity because the potential benefit is infinite, and the potential loss is finite. Whereas if you don't live it the potential loss is infinite and the potential benefit is finite.

This argument is correct if you make one assumption and that is what Pascal missed. You have to assume that Christianity is the only possible option; that it is the only competitor for your allegiance. If there are other possibilities, such as Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, and maybe even Judaism, the argument works just as well for each of them and leaves you with no direction as to what to do. Every one of these promises an infinite benefit or an infinite loss depending on how you live vis-a-vis its practices.

So, Pascal's argument in its own context is a mistake because he is relying on an assumption which he couldn't prove. But for us this is no problem. We are not trying to prove that one should live Judaism without evidence. On the contrary! We are trying to fulfill our responsibility to find the truth. We do that by finding the alternative with the best evidence. Now I argued above that there are no competitors, in terms of evidence, to Judaism. So, therefore, in terms of religion, it's Judaism or nothing.

At this point an argument similar to Pascal's comes marching back in, and marching in validly. If there is only one competitor that you regard as relevant, because it presents evidence, and that is Judaism, then the potential benefits to living as if Judaism is true are infinite, and the losses of living it if it's false are finite. Therefore it is better to live it than not to live it. This means that the agnostic cannot avoid the hard choice of how to live just because he claims not to have decided to believe or disbelieve.

[Strictly speaking, the use of Pascal's argument does put the atheist at a disadvantage. Just because he does not offer infinite consequences for different patterns of behavior, it seems that it becomes obligatory to live as if the Torah is true, no matter how poor the evidence is for the Torah's truth. This seems like too cheap a victory! There are (at least) two ways to block this conclusion. One could question the fixing of consequences: why not consider an option which has a god who infinitely rewards directing belief and action by absolute proof disregarding the mere balance of evidence, and punishes the opposite? Alternatively, one could allow the atheist infinite consequences also. For example, he might hold certain moral obligations infinitely important. If we execute a Sabbath violator, and if the Torah were not true (G-d forbid), the atheist might hold this to be an infinitely bad result. (Remember that in decision theory it is subjective evaluations which count. The theory tells you that if you value the consequences in this way, then your decision should be that.) Then the decision between the Torah and atheism would be made on the same grounds as the decision between the Torah and other religions, that is on the basis of the best evidence.]


The agnostic can be intellectually uncertain and so not need to justify his non-belief. But he will have to choose how to live, and he needs to justify that choice. A genuine agnostic about religion would be expected to investigate and take the precaution of living religiously.

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One last point. Some people are disturbed by a false distinction. They say: "Look, if it's a matter of limited importance where to invest my money, which profession to train in, or perhaps even whom to marry, these are all limited decisions. They are decisions that can be reversed. I can invest $10,000 in AT&T, and if I lose it, it's not the end of my life. Hopefully I'll make more money in my lifetime. If I train for a profession and it turns out that there is an oversupply, I can train for another profession or move to a country where the profession is needed. If I marry someone and it is a mistake, I can get a divorce and marry someone else. If it is a limited decision, a decision of limited importance, then maybe I should make it on the sole basis of high probability vis-a-vis alternatives. But, you are asking me to make a decision about my whole life. This is my whole life, it changes everything that I do, my values, my conduct, and so on. Surely for a decision like that I ought to have more than just high relative probability. For that I ought to have a solid proof, or at least something that is very high in probability. Shouldn't I have higher standards when it comes to my whole life?"

I think that this is a mistake, for three reasons. First, even the decision to lead a religious life-style is reversible. Some people experiment and then decide it is not for them. So that difference between this decision and others is not true. Second, living a religious life does not entail changing everything else. Religious people have families, professions, vacations, computers, etc. etc. Of course, some activities are changed, and priorities are different. But then every decision in life brings some changes. There may be a quantitative difference here - religious living has comparatively many changes. But it is not enough of a difference to justify a completely different criterion for making the decision.

The third reason is this: Even if the stakes are enormous, if they are balanced between the two alternatives, then we still use highest probability to make our decision. You can see this from the following example. Let's suppose you go to the doctor and he does a checkup of your physical condition. He says that there are symptoms here of two possible diseases. You definitely have one of the two diseases, but it is not clear which one you have. It might be A or B. If you have either disease you will need surgery. If you don't have any surgery, you will be dead in two months. If you have disease A then you need surgery A'. If you have disease B then you need surgery B'. If you get the wrong surgery (say you have disease A and they do surgery B') then you will also die in two months. So, we have a real dilemma here. Should we do any surgery, and if so, which?

Now let's suppose that given the symptoms, and comparing the symptoms with other people who have had the symptoms, it turns out that for people in your circumstance there is a 52% chance that you have disease A and a 48% chance that you have disease B. That is only a six percent difference. That doesn't amount to any proof that the surgery is best, or which surgery to do. Would you say "Ah, well, I don't have any proof that surgery is right for me, so therefore I won't take it." I doubt it! All the evidence tells you that without any surgery you will be dead in two months!

Would you say: "But I don't know which surgery to do - I don't have a proof which is best?" If the statistics show that surgery A' gives you a four percent edge on survival, then the four percent edge, which is all that is available to you under the circumstances, is worth grabbing. Here, the fact that it is survival, that it's my whole life, and that it is not just a question of relative inconveniences does not change the criterion of choice at all. The criterion of choice is: How can I get a higher probability of survival? The relative probability is only four percent and that doesn't matter. I want that extra four percent probability!

Sometimes I put it this way. Suppose that you're hanging over a cliff, and that you're holding on to a branch of a tree waiting to be rescued, but it is not quite clear that the branch will hold you indefinitely. It is creaking, and there is another branch that you could switch to without risk of falling, but it is not clear to you that the other branch is stronger. Suppose that you know something about trees and you estimate that the probability of the second branch being stronger is maybe three percent greater than the probability of the strength of the branch you are holding onto. Do you say: "Well, it's my life. Since it's my life, I want proof that it is stronger. I don't make moves with my life unless I have proof that it is better." Of course not. You have a three percent increase on the probability of surviving on the second branch. YOU MOVE! You purchase a three percent increase in your probability of survival. So, the fact that the stakes are large, in this case the largest possible, survival, doesn't change the criterion of choice at all. The criterion of choice is always the same - higher probability of truth vis-a-vis the alternatives.

[Of course, the alternatives and their consequences need to be carefully specified for the analogy to work. I am describing both alternatives - Torah and atheism - as offering infinite consequences. (See previous [ ]) So the analogy works like this: right surgery/right branch gets life, wrong surgery/wrong branch gets death; living according to the true religion gets infinite good, living according to the false religion gets infinite bad. In this case it is correct to go with the alternative with the better evidence even it is only a little better. Sometimes it is objected that if there is a balance between the infinite consequences, we should allow other differences to affect the decision, e.g. the (finite) costs of living a religious life-style. The analogy fails, they say, because I have left out the relative costs of the two alternatives. Presumably switching branches costs nothing, and the costs of the surgery are not mentioned. What if it costs $100, or $10,000, or $1,000,000 to switch branches, or to have surgery A' in stead of B': surely there is some price at which the added few per cent probability of survival would not be worth the cost? This objection admits two replies. First, the decision to sacrifice the few per cent advantage may reflect a finite value for one's life! People risk their lives for all sorts of trivial reasons! Second, it is not clear that the religious life-style has an extra cost. If we take the statistics of violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, illiteracy, etc., it seems that the religious life-style may be a bargain!]


The fact that the choice of religion affects one's whole life - values, behavior, priorities, etc. - does not change the criterion for the choice. The reason is that the consequences of making the right or wrong decision are equally great. Thus highest probability vis-a-vis alternatives applies to the choice of religion just as it does to all other decisions.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7

So, we will be looking for a sufficiently high probability of truth vis-a-vis alternatives. Now, the specific strategy that we are going to use in verifying the Torah has two facets that I want to explain to you. First, some parts of the descriptive portion of the Torah can be investigated directly, e.g. statements about historical events. Some of them are predictions that were made about times which have already past and so can be investigated at present. On the other hand, some of the portions of the descriptive content of the Torah cannot be investigated directly: what happens to the soul after death; all predictions still to be fulfilled in the future, for example, there will be a Messiah one day, haven't occurred yet. Those that can be investigated directly, we will investigate. What about the ones that cannot be investigated directly?

The answer here is as follows. We have a single coordinated body of information. Whenever you have a coordinated body of information, some of which you can test directly and some of which you cannot test directly, if the portion that can be tested directly tests true, then that gives credibility to the rest. You do not artificially select, and say: "That which I have tested I believe. The rest of it I haven't tested, so I have no reason to accept it." On the contrary, if the portion that can be tested tests true, then it lends credibility to the rest.

This is true in any area of life. So, for example, in science, take any theory. A theory has an infinity of consequences. You never test any reasonable proportion of that infinity! We don't say: "Well, Einstein predicted that when light pass the sun, it will be slightly warped. We tested it on fourteen occasions and so we know that on those fourteen occasions the light rays bent. What about the rest of the time when we were not looking? Oh, then I don't have any reason to believe anything because I didn't test any of those times." What we say is that the portion which we tested is an indication of the reliability of the rest. Similarly with respect to an encyclopedia, or a newspaper, or any other source of information: when they tell you things that you directly test, and they test true, that gives them a certain credibility. You then extend that credibility to the rest.

Suppose someone says: "I don't believe anything unless I test it myself. I don't trust anybody else's opinion, and I don't trust anybody else's research. I only believe what I saw myself." He will believe next to nothing about the world. I usually ask such a person if he knows who his parents are. How do you know? Have you done a DNA test? Probably not. It is pretty expensive and pretty rare. You probably trust them because they told you. But, they could be lying. You didn't fingerprint of your mother when you came out! So how do you know that it is your mother? It is because she told you so many things and usually she is credible. It is still conceivable that you were adopted, but it is very unlikely, and that is good enough for you.

What about the past in general? You can't go back and observe the revolutionary war. I'm speaking as an American now, our revolution, the one that we won. You trust it because people wrote books about it. There are maps. There are letters. There are artifacts. That is to say that you trust someone else's observations, someone else's reports. Do you know that there is such a place as China? How do you know? You were not ever in China (most of you anyway). Do you know the boiling point of Mercury? How do you know? You read it in a book, that is to say you trust the author of the book, the scientist who performed the experiment.

We are always accepting the statements of other people. We don't do it blindly. We know that some people lie. We also know that some people are competent in certain areas and incompetent it other areas, and we may accept their statements in one area and reject then in other areas. We are selective with respect to what we believe. But we must extend general credibility to a source on the basis of testing some of the assertions of that source. If you don't do that, you will be hamstrung and not know anything at all.

This is, in fact, the way in which we operate. That is how we make our decisions in any other area of life. If I have to decide what to eat, what profession to go into, or where to live, that is how I make those decisions. A person who makes decisions in every other area of life on this basis, and when it comes to religion says, "Oh no, for religion I have different standards. Here I want a much more strict accounting. I want an independent proof of every assertion," such a person is playing fast and loose. Such a person uses one standard with respect to every other decision, but with respect to this decision, he is using a different standard. That sounds like special pleading: he is trying to protect himself against the conclusion. If it were not special pleading, then why didn't he use the same set of standards across the board? Now, I am only asking that a person use the same standards with respect to religion that he uses with respect to other decisions.


The descriptive portion of the Torah can be divided into that part which can at present be investigated directly, and that part which cannot. If the investigation of the first yields sufficient evidence to accept it as true, then the second is accepted as credible also on the grounds of belonging to the same body of information as the first.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7

The other feature, the general outline of how we are going to apply this strategy, is as follows. Let's suppose that you have an area of life, and that you think that in this area you know how to explain the phenomena that you observe. It could be the behavior of billiard balls on a billiard table, certain types of chemical reactions, pictures of particles scattered in a cloud chamber, the behavior of missiles and so on. You have what looks to you to be a catalog of all the relevant causal agents for that realm. Then you come across a new phenomenon which seems to belong to the same realm, and for which your catalog of agents is insufficient. Now hear me well when I say that the catalog of agents is insufficient. I don't just mean that you haven't figured out yet how to explain it, I mean more than that. I mean that you have an argument which shows that your causal agents cannot explain it. What do we do under those circumstances?

I'll give you an example. In the early 1920's, there was an investigation of the structure of the atom. There was a period when people thought that the nucleus was composed solely of protons. Now protons are positively charged, and the law of electrostatics is that like charges repel. The question was, how come all those protons are sitting buddy-buddy in the nucleus? Why aren't they repelling each other all over creation?

Now, at that time, the only two non-dynamic forces that were in the catalog of science were electrostatics and gravity. Electrostatics are pulling them apart. Could gravity be holding them together? That is impossible because gravity's order of magnitude is weaker than electrostatics. The standard example is this. You have a bar magnet, you hold it over an iron nail, and as you get closer and closer to the nail, suddenly the nail will jump up to the bar magnet. Now you can look at this as a tug of war. On the one hand you have the bar magnet pulling it up. On the other hand, you have the whole earth pulling it down, and the bar magnet wins very easily. That gives you an idea of how much more powerful electrostatic forces are than gravity.

So, why are the protons sitting together in the nucleus if electrostatics are pushing them apart and gravity cannot hold them together? What is the answer? The answer is the only thing it could be. There must be another force. The nuclear force. We have to expand our catalog of forces because the forces we have in it cannot possibly explain this phenomena. The phenomenon is reliable, and therefore we must have missed some other causal agency which is responsible for this phenomenon. That is how we operate in all of life. It doesn't have to be something as sophisticated as science. For example, so and so was murdered. I checked the butler, I checked the driver, and I checked the delivery man. They all have air tight alibis. What do I conclude? It must be somebody else. These people couldn't have done it. I'll have to go look for somebody else.

Now, we have a similar structure. We are going to take a look at Jewish history. In particular, we are going to look at unique features of Jewish history, features which separate Jewish history from the history of all the other nations. I mean this in a strong sense. Of course, everybody's history is different from everyone else's; otherwise it wouldn't be theirs, it would be someone else's! I mean that Jewish history has features which are different from the features which all other nations histories share. There are certain characteristics which all other nations have in common, and Jewish history is distinguished from them in those respects. Now, if I look at history and that is what I find, I have to ask myself for a causal agency which can explain it.

Let me make this vivid for you. Imagine a Martian visiting Earth and being introduced to all the flora and fauna, and in particular being introduced to mankind, and studying the history of various civilizations and forming certain regularities. Maybe they won't be very profound, deep, or theoretical, but still: this is the way nations react to famine, to war, to peace, to success, to failure, to cultural achievement, to cultural stagnation, to empire, to dissolution of empire and so on. Now, the Martian investigates the Chinese, the Romans, the Nigerians, the Eskimos, the Incas and so on. Imagine that he has done that for every culture and civilization except for the Jews and he has formulated his rules for how human beings respond to various life circumstances.

Then he comes to investigate Jewish history. Now, there are in broad terms, two possibilities here. Either he will say, "Oh yes, more of the same. What happened to the Jews in the fifteenth century is similar to what happened to the Incas in the tenth century. What happened to the Jews in the nineteenth century is similar to what happened to the Chinese in the fourth century. You can see parallels. Things are pretty much the same." Then you would expect Jewish history to be explained by the same forces, the same powers, and the same causes that explain everyone else's history. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is that the Martian will say, "This is absolutely unique. It contradicts all my expectations. It doesn't fit into the patterns of other nations and civilizations. It is something brand new." I am going to argue that it is brand new - that an honest Martian's perspective would lead to the conclusion that Jewish history is unlike any other nation's history with respect to the way in which they are all alike.

If so, what must the Martian conclude? The Martian must conclude that there is something unique that is producing this unique historical record. The kinds of causes that led to the rise, development, and fall of other civilizations, all of which have patterns in common, are not responsible for the development of the Jewish civilization because it is unique in these respects. So that, he will have to add to his catalog agencies, some new agency, call it X, and by looking carefully at the kind of uniqueness that we are talking about, he can read off it certain characteristics that X must possess, because X has to be responsible for this unique phenomena, and therefore, it must have certain characteristics.


If we have method of explaining a type of event and we find an event of that type which our method cannot explain, we must expand the method to include something which will explain the new event. The methods of explaining the history of other nations and cultures will not explain Jewish history. Hence something must be added to explain Jewish history.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7

Let me just illustrate for you how a portion of the argument will go. I am not presenting the argument, I am not defending the argument, I am simply illustrating the methodology. I will take much longer to present the details in a much more comprehensive fashion later. I am merely illustrating so you understand the general method. Look at the survival of the Jewish people over the last 2000 years. I will argue that it is unique. No nation underwent that kind of historical and cultural pressure and survived. There is nothing remotely approximating what they experienced. It is unique. If it is unique, then some agency is responsible for it. That is the X that is being added to the catalog of historical agents.

What must this X be like? Well, what did it do? For one thing, it maintained the existence of a civilization under conditions that should have lead to its disappearance. What must such a force be like? It must have some sort of considerable energy or power at its disposal. This is not a small effect. This is maintaining a civilization involving millions of people over thousands of years.

Secondly, this power must have some considerable intelligence at its disposal. It is maintaining a civilization! It is maintaining a complex pattern of human behavior, human belief, certain values, a certain literature, a certain world view and so on. So, this power must have some considerable intelligence at its disposal. Third, this power must also be interested, in particular, in this specific civilization. After all, it is only this civilization that this power causes to survive.

So, from this unique effect - that is to say, the existence of a civilization in conditions under which other civilizations have disintegrated - you can infer certain that such a force must have a certain amount of power, intelligence, and a commitment to the Jewish way of life. Otherwise it would not explain the existence of this civilization. Now those are descriptions of G-d. That is how you can take a unique factor of Jewish history, explain it by postulating a force that is responsible for it, and then infer from the unique phenomena some minimal characteristics of that force and arrive at a direct conformation of G-d's existence.


If Jewish history cannot be explained by other methods, then we infer a new causal agency. That agency must have certain characteristics to be able to explain Jewish history - power, intelligence and a particular concern for Jewish survival must be among them. These are descriptions of G-d.

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