Ontologial Reductionism and Invisible Dragons

by Balofsky 34 min read20th Mar 201280 comments




A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s article, “Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable.” This wasn’t the first time my friend had sent me articles by Yudkowsky from Less Wrong, concerning religion in general and Judaism in particular. With each of us having grown up in secular-yet-cultural Jewish homes, and with me having morphed into an Orthodox Jew of the Lubavitch-Chasidic variety early in college, the material for discussion (arguing?) is usually pretty good.


So I wrote a response to Yudkowsky’s article. Originally meant to be a long-ish Facebook post, it got longer and longer… and I ended up with an essay article instead. So rather than post it on Facebook, I decided that I’d share it with the good people of the Less Wrong community. But first, some necessary preliminary remarks.


·     While I have made an effort to familiarize myself with Less Wrong’s Core Sequences and with the more essential material, I admit that I am not as intimately familiar with the methods of mathematical calculation and philosophical dialectic as I’m sure many members of the Rationalist community here are. I will do my best to keep my assertions clear and intellectually honest, but I apologize for any unconventionality in style, and for my extensive over-use of parentheses.


·     This article is not meant to be a presentation of evidence for the existence of G-d or the authenticity of the Torah, in the style of an argument, and so “G-d is real and wrote the Torah” is not my thesis. Rather, this is only meant as a response to Yudkowsky’s assertion that ‘Old Testament’ based thinking deserves no place in any sort of intellectual discourse. My thesis here is simply that Yudkowsky’s critiques of Judaism are generally not correct, that it does deserve such a place, and that Rationalist thinking should not necessitate an a priori rejection of all religious philosophy. This essay is meant to be intellectually open to criticism (any criticism).


·     This critique is meant to be a reasonable one, and is not meant as a personal attack on Yudkowsky or any other members of the skeptic community, nor is it meant as any sort of moral rebuke, or anything along those lines. My arguments are meant to be logical, and are meant to be in accord with the etiquette appropriate for the Less Wrong community.


·     I am aware and have read the many other essays Yudkowsky has written on rationality and religion, and I am familiar with SIAI’s work. While this essay will focus particularly on “Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable,” I will make references to Yudkowsky’s other essays if needed for clarification, while trying to avoid unnecessary digressions.


For clarity’s sake, I will organize my responses into five categories, ranked in order according to the organization of this particular article by Yudkowsky (roughly). These categories are not meant to be strict, but are simply meant to function as an organizational tool. I’ll limit my responses to issues concerning Judaism, since Judaism (though Yudkowsky prefers the term “Old Testament”) is the primary subject of criticism in the article, and it is the religious Weltanschauung that I am most familiar with. As Yudkowsky generally employs an academic style mixed with satire, I’ll try to do so too, and given the context of this post, I will generally use English rather than Hebrew terminology, while simultaneously trying to avoid overtly Christian terminology. I will be using the Mishneh Torah (12th c. CE) as my primary reference for Judaic law, given that it is the oldest, the most topically organized, and the most comprehensive code of Jewish law.


My five general critiques are:


1)      The author makes precisely 3 statements regarding Halacha (Judaic law), each of which is demonstrably incorrect.


2)      The author asserts that the Tanakh (Old Testament) “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”


3)      The author asserts that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah without accounting for Bayes’ Theorem.


4)      The author asserts that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.  


5)      The author asserts that the Torah’s views on legislation, government, history, sexual morals, science, and (most pointedly) ethics are outdated, in light of what Yudkowsky describes as progressive human advancement.




Section One: The author makes three statements regarding Halacha, each of which is demonstrably false.


Yudkowsky claims that according to the Torah, (1) cross-dressing is a capital crime, (2) rabbits are ruminants, and (3) locusts have four legs.


Regarding the first statement, though the Torah prohibits men from wearing women’s clothing (and vice versa), it is not a crime that carries the death penalty, as stated in the Code of Jewish Law: “A man who adorns himself as a woman does, and a woman who adorns herself as a man does, are chayav, liable (Mishneh Torah., Laws of Idolatrous Worship 12:10)”, indicating there is no capital punishment.


Regarding the second statement, it is true that rabbits are listed in the Torah as chewing their cud, and it is true that according to modern scientific observation they are not true ruminants. However, it is also true that rabbits do practice a form cecotrophy through the reingestion of special fecal pellets. Hence, rabbinic authorities that interpret the Hebrew word shafan as ‘rabbit’ classify their manner of cecotrophy as ma’aleh gerah, chewing the cud. Likewise, even in this instance, the Halacha recognizes that rabbits are not true ruminants in the exact same sense as, say, cows or sheep. The Code of Jewish Law states,

“The signs of a kosher domesticated animal and beast are explicitly mentioned in the Torah. There are two signs: a split hoof and chewing the cud. Both are necessary. Any domesticated animal and beast that chews the cud does not have teeth on its upper jaw-bone. Every animal that chews the cud has split hoofs except a camel. Every animal that has split hoofs chews the cud except a pig. (M.T., Laws of Forbidden Foods 1:2)”

The commentator Maggid Mishneh explains that the Mishneh Torah does not mention rabbits as chewing their cud because they have teeth on their upper jaw, and complete ruminants do not.                    

Regarding the third statement, the third book of the Torah states, “(A)mong all the flying insects that walk on four, you may eat those that have jointed extensions above its legs, with which they hop on the ground.” On this subject, the Code of Jewish Law says that these four legs are excluding the back legs meant for jumping, stating, “Whenever a species has four legs, four wings that cover the majority of the length and the majority of the width of its body, and it has two longer legs to hop, it is a kosher species. (M.T., Laws of Forbidden Foods 1:22)” As part of their traditional cuisine, the Yemenite Jewish community to this day still eats those locusts identified in the Torah as kosher.

While I understand that these are highly peripheral points of  Yudkowsky’s article, I’m noting them because I’m guessing that Yudkowsky has some sort of yeshiva background, has probably actually studied Jewish law before, and yet each comment in his article regarding Halacha is incorrect. Also, if one were to argue that these halachic rulings may just be apologetic glosses on a defective primary text (the Torah), I’d point out that the Mishneh Torah was written in the 12th century CE, and that its rulings are a compilation of rulings from the Mishnah (1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE). General knowledge of animal biology was still very rudimentary in both eras.


Section Two: The author claims that the Tanakh “doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe.”

It does. It would be difficult to find a string of Tehillim (King David’s psalms) that do not make extensive use of nature imagery. Poetic references to nature are so frequent in the 150 Tehillim, that Talmudic legend portrays King David as spending his free time wandering around in the wilderness alone, and as having the ability to understand the language of birds, trees, plants, and leaves of grass. In fact, people in the Jewish tradition who are regarded as uniquely holy are often portrayed as having a relationship with, and being in awe of the beauty of nature, and as having the ability to speak with birds and trees. This includes various Talmudic sages, the Arizal, the Baal Shem Tov, Nachman of Breslov, R. Zundel of Salant, z”l etc. Considering that the Psalms have formed the basis of Hebrew ritual prayer since the first Israelite ruling dynasty, this does not seem in keeping with Yudkowsky’s portrayal of the ancient Hebrews as being unconcerned with the wonders of nature.

However, Yudkowsky’s point may still hold. It’s true that there’s nothing written in the Tanakh that seems to be obviously on the same wavelength as, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Euclid’s Elements. However, the study of science and theoretical metaphysics is most definitely not lacking in Hebrew oral tradition— which, as Yudkowsky and any other scholar should know, is every bit a part of historical Judaism as the Tanakh itself. In The Kuzari, one of the classics of traditional Jewish philosophy written in the 12th century CE, the author Judah HaLevy describes the Torah & Talmud’s treatment of science this way:

“The members of the Sanhedrin (ancient chief rabbinic court in Jerusalem of 70 members) were bound not to let any science, real and fictitious, or conventional, escape their knowledge, magic and language included. How was it possible at all times to find 70 available scholars unless learning was common among the Israelites? This could not be otherwise, as all branches of science were required for the practice of the Law.”                

HaLevy then goes on to give a brief description of how the practice of Judaism requires intensive study of astronomy, music, agriculture, natural medicine, Hebrew grammar, foreign languages, human anatomy & biology, legalism, hermeneutic logic, economics, trigonometry, rhetoric and metaphysical speculation, as all of these disciplines are necessary for the precise application of Jewish law. Expertise in at least 2 areas of science and 6 foreign languages were requisite for membership in the Sanhedrin, and indeed, all of these sciences are extensively utilized in the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud. HaLevy also emphasizes that the Jewish value of scholarly pursuit is inherited from ancient Israel’s scholars and prophets, and even maintains that the Greek love of philosophy originated as a Jewish influence.

In other words, the Torah does not displace intellectual inquiry, but rather, is specifically designed to stimulate it. Put another way, “Lo am ha’aretz chasid. (Mishnah, Pirkei Avos)” An ignoramus cannot be pious.

I do not know if Socrates and Plato really did acquire all of their philosophical methods by traveling to Jerusalem and studying in the court of King Solomon, as certain Jewish traditions claim. But the fact that such traditions even existed is a testament to the reverence that ancient Jewry held for the pursuit of knowledge as a direct result of the Mosaic Law, and is, again, hardly in keeping with Yudkowsky’s assertion that “the Old Testament doesn’t talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe - it was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men’s clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era.”

Furthermore, even though HaLevy cites the Torah itself as a source for the necessity to master the sciences  (“And you shall keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Deuteronomy 4:6), this does not mean that any scientific or philosophical pronouncement from the mouth of a religious scholar was taken as dogma. In his discussion of Sefer Yetzirah, a book of metaphysical cosmogony legendarily attributed to the Biblical Abraham, HaLevy says after his description of its contents,

“This, however, is still not satisfactory, because the object of research is either too profound to be fathomed, or our minds are inadequate, or both… for no two philosophers could ever agree on this matter, unless they happen to have had the same teacher.”

In other words, one of the most popular Jewish philosophical texts in history openly admits that the Patriarch Abraham’s views on cosmology may have been incorrect. I mention this point in anticipation of the counter-argument that, perhaps, ancient Hebrew interest in science and philosophy was strangled by preconceived outcomes and intellectual dogmas (“Why continue studying the universe, when Abraham’s Sefer Yetzirah explains the whole thing already!?”). Indeed, the Sefer Yetzirah was later followed by other books and schools of Jewish thought with contending views of nature, matter, and the human mind.

It is here that we touch on the real issue. Yudkowsky already openly admits that Judaism encourages questioning. However, he asserts that such questioning is strangled by predetermined outcomes, and therefore, does not constitute a genuine pursuit of knowledge— he explains his views on this in, “Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points.” Likewise, in “Tsuyoku Naritai!,” Yudkowsky points out that modern rabbis cannot overrule ancient rabbis in matters of Halacha, because of the assumption that since G-d gave the Torah to Rabbi A, who gave it to Rabbi B, knowledge of the Torah inevitably decreases as it reaches Rabbis C, D, E, etc. Yudkowsky then concludes that both knowledge and ethics, as conceived in Orthodox Judaism, only degrades, in addition to being limited by preconceived outcomes, thus making Judaism’s approach to learning qualitatively inferior to the approach of the scientific method.


Before proceeding, I want to pause and clarify a concept. In “Tsuyoku Naritai!”, Yudkowsky is making reference to the more general Jewish concept of yeridas hadoros, or “descent of the generations,” which generally refers to the notion that people become less-and-less spiritual with succeeding generations, and  the ancient past is therefore associated with sacred origins, rather than with more primitive stages of a progressive, evolutionary scale. Yudkowsky’s views on Judaism’s approach to knowledge and progress are based primarily, I think, on three misunderstandings concerning yeridas hadoros.


1) Regarding Halacha: It is true that modern rabbis cannot overrule ancient rabbis in matters of Halacha— this principle of Jewish legal reasoning is written in the Talmud, Masechta Megillah (“No rabbinic court may nullify the ruling of another rabbinic court, unless they are superior in wisdom and number”). The logic underlying this rule derives from the increasingly weaker claims to traditional interpretation of the Torah, commensurate with increasingly later stages of a lengthening historical chain of transmission from the original Revelation at Sinai, and the codification of the oral tradition in the Talmud. From a legal standpoint, this is logical— and in fact, it’s empirically observable.  For instance: nowadays, mezuzahs are placed at a diagonal, due to doubt whether they should be vertical or horizontal. There is a doubt as to whether new days start at sundown or nightfall, therefore, the Sabbath is 25 hours long, to include both opinions. There are doubts about how to make tefillin properly; therefore, there are both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. There really was once a time when these issues were not debated; but doubts arose over time, mainly due to exile and government persecutions that caused interruptions in the oral tradition. This is an empirically observable aspect of yeridas hadoros, and it’s in reference to this principle that the Talmud (Shabbat 112b) says, “If the earlier scholars were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier scholars were sons of men, we are like donkeys.” Furthermore, acquiescing to courts “greater in wisdom and number” and to courts of previous eras is designed to produce a smoothly functioning legal system, a democratic process in scholarly legal rulings, and to prevent schisms among Jewry with varying legal approaches. This is why the outcomes of Talmudic legal debates were decided according to a vote from the Sanhedrin, and why decisions are determined by the majority opinion of the Sanhedrin, even if the majority opinion is incorrect. This is legal reasoning, rather than scientific reasoning.


2) Regarding acquisition of new scientific knowledge: Rabbinic authorities acquiesce to courts greater in wisdom and number concerning (even incorrect) legal rulings, for the reasons stated above. However, they do not acquiesce in objective scientific knowledge, and in fact, most rabbinic authorities throughout the ages have not even permitted this approach. Rabbi Avraham HaNaggid (13th c. CE), in his commentary to the Talmud, put it this way:

“Know that it is your duty to understand that whoever propounds a certain theory or idea and expects that theory or idea to be accepted merely out of respect for the author without proving its truth and rationality, pursues a wrong method prohibited by both the Torah and human intelligence. From the standpoint of  intelligence, such a method is worthless for it would cause one to minimize the  importance of those things which, after scrupulous observation and proofs, ought  to be believed, and from the point of view of the Torah— because it inclines from  the true path and from the straight, leveled road. The L-rd, praised be He! said: “Thou shalt not respect the poor person, nor honor the great person; in justice shalt thou judge (Lev. 19, 15)”. And it also says, “You shall not respect a person in judgment (Deut. 1:17)”. And there is no difference between him who accents an idea without any evidence as to its integrity, and him who believes a person’s statement simply because he respects the latter and therefore contends that his idea is undoubtedly true since it emanates from a great man like Heiman, Karkal, or Darda. For all this gives no evidence as to the merits of the subject in question and is therefore forbidden. According to this preamble, then, we are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, etc, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah  is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of  knowledge, as it is said, “In accordance with the instructions which they may  instruct thee, etc (Deut 17:11)”, still it is not necessarily so concerning any other  branch of knowledge. You can see that even the sages themselves say very often of things which cannot proven by discussions and arguments, “I swear, that even had Joshua bin Nun said it, I would not obey him!” This means that I would not believe him although he was a prophet— since he cannot prove the reason for such a thing in accordance with the rules of the Talmudic construction.”


3) Regarding human progress: The concept of generational descent is only applied to the exoteric aspects of Judaism, such as the plainer meanings of the Tanakh, Halacha, Midrashic literature, etc. In contrast, the more esoteric aspects of Judaism, such as Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, are generally regarded as experiencing a generational ascent, rather than descent. Consequently, yeridas hadoros is traditionally understood as a dialectic process of decreasing knowledge of the more “revealed” aspects of the Jewish tradition, accompanied simultaneously by concepts of meta-ethics and philosophy of increasing intellectual sophistication (though dialectically, innate human intuition for spirituality decreases generationally).


I admit that certain intellectual limitations do undoubtedly exist in Judaism, just as they exist within any religion or ideology that operates around certain axioms. An orthodox Jewish thinker could never truly adopt utilitarian hedonism, for instance, and remain an Orthodox Jew, just as a Marxist could never decide that capitalism is actually a really good idea and remain a socialist. Nor could the Orthodox Jew reject, say, prophecy or free-will. However, there is nothing inherently non-rational in such assertions so long as these assertions are the product of free thought, and can be argued for intelligently.


Section Three: The author claims that historical Judaism defends the authenticity of the Torah, without accounting for Bayes’ rule.

Here, I will not contend that the Torah is, indeed, a direct communication from The Ineffable to Moses (though I do think so). That would be beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I will limit myself to arguing that the traditional Jewish claim is not based on an intrinsic logical fallacy.

The Bayesian rule expresses how a subjective degree of belief should rationally change to account for evidence. More specifically, proponents of Bayes’ theorem generally posit that (1) it is illogical to ignore what we know, (2) it is natural and useful to cast what we know in the language of probabilities, and (3) if our subjective probabilities are erroneous, their impact will get washed out in due time, as the number of observations increases.


Before proceeding, I will admit that arguing in favor of the Torah’s authenticity is difficult in light of purely Bayesian reasoning, as the traditional understanding is rooted in causal reasoning, rather than probabilistic. As probability theory deals with beliefs about a static environment, while causality deals with changes that occur in the world itself in real time, it is only natural that rabbinic understandings of the Torah’s origin and historical, generational transmission work with causal logic and language. Further, as Judea Pearl points out in his article, “Bayesianism and Causality, or, Why I am Only a Half-Bayesian,” a complete synthesis of causal and statistical reasoning is mathematically untenable. That said, I will only argue that the historical Jewish claim does not violate (1) above: it does not ignore what we now know, nor has it in previous eras. So to proceed:

 To paraphrase Yudkowsky, “This boy was frothing at the mouth— he must have suffered from demons. That man over there cured the boy— he must be an exorcist!” By Bayes’ rule, this is perfect reasoning— assuming the boy’s illness came from demons. Yudkowsky asserts that the Torah has the same problem (“We heard a Voice proclaim from the mountain, ‘It’s all true!’”). In fact, Yudkowsky admits that even if there really had been a voice, the Bayesian theorem would still reveal the logical fallacy— how do you know the voice is Divine, and it isn’t just the Wizard of Oz hiding behind Mount Sinai with a loudspeaker? And as humanity progresses beyond the Torah scientifically and morally, doesn’t it become more and more likely, even highly probable, that given G-d or the Wizard of Oz, it was more likely the Wonderful Wizard? Also, aren’t we ignoring the original fraction of necessarily false claims in our computation— in this case, all of the other supernatural religious claims that have ever been made?

First, let me recount the earliest scientific experiment that I know of. It’s earlier than Yudkowsky’s example: Moses’ confrontation with the Pharaoh’s magicians.

It roughly went like this. Moses goes to Pharaoh, declares that only the G-d of the Hebrews is the real G-d, and then his staff is thrown to the floor, which turns into a snake. Then Pharaoh’s court magicians throw a staff to the floor, and for the sake of scientific control, attempt to replicate Moses’ results to test the critical p-value of their own hypothesis. However, unlike the priests of Baal, the magicians actually do replicate the results. Boom: another snake! The magicians, satisfied with having duplicated Moses’ results, reject his hypothesis and declare themselves victorious.

Though from the very start, it was only the court magicians who thought it was an acceptable experiment. Because you see, the magicians were conducting the experiment under the a priori assumption that any alterations of the natural order would constitute real evidence, which in that era, would make sense from a Bayesian perspective.

Furthermore, back in the day, nobody ever seriously entertained the notion that only one’s own national pantheon was objectively real. To the Egyptians, the gods of Persia, Greece and Ireland were just as “real” as their own— they may have been foreign deities, but deities nonetheless. The Persians, Greeks, and Irish themselves all thought this, too— orthodox Hindus to this day still often think this way. This was generally due to an inability to distinguish between the factual and the fantastic.

So for Pharaoh’s magicians, the burden of proof was quite low: their thesis was that Osiris and Ra were just as real as the G-d of the Hebrews, so all that was needed was a replication of Moses’ results to yield a low p-value for Moses’ thesis that the G-d of the Hebrews was objectively real, and the Egyptians and whole worlds’ deities, not. The fact that Moses’ snake ended up eating their snakes did not matter; their thesis was simply that Osiris and Ra were also real.

Moses, on the other hand, knew that miraculous phenomena did not constitute rational evidence of nearly anything at all— and he knew the experiment was artificial, due to this knowledge.  The Code of Jewish Law states it this way (this quote is long, but necessary— I will keep coming back to it):

“The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the miracle that he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on miracles, the commitment of his intellect has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery (Note: magic and sorcery refer to optical illusions, as the compiler of this code did not believe in real sorcery).

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof of the legitimacy of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. …The same applies to all of the other miracles.

What is the source of our belief in him? The revelation at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following....”

Thus, Deuteronomy relates: “Face to face, G-d spoke to you,” and it states: “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.”

How is it known that the revelation at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? Exodus states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, so that they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.

Thus, those to whom Moses was sent witnessed his appointment as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his colleague.

Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to the appointment of Moses, our teacher, at the revelation at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.

This concept is alluded to in the interchange between G-d and Moses at the revelation of the burning bush. At the beginning of his prophecy, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the signs and wonders to perform in Egypt and told him, “And they will listen to your voice.”

Moses, our teacher, knew that one who believes in another person because of miracles has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: “They will not believe me”, until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders were intended only as a temporary measure, until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain and all doubts which they had about him would be removed.

G-d told him: Here, I will give you a sign so that they will know that I truly sent you from the outset, and thus, no doubts will remain in their hearts. This is what is meant by the statement: “This will be your sign that I sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain.” (M.T., Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 8:1-3)”

So it worked like this. Moses has a prophetic vision of a burning bush. The Infinite One says, “I’m sending you as a prophet to the Hebrews— go to them, and tell them I sent you!” This was entirely unprecedented. Even though there had been others in Hebrew history to have had prophetic visions, the communications in those visions had always concerned information pertinent to the individual alone. After all, if Abraham, Isaac or Jacob had gone around to people saying “Hey! I had a prophecy! This proves G-d’s existence! Let’s all be monotheists now!” such a thing would have been illogical. After all, why should anyone believe them? They could have performed impressive miracles, perhaps— but how would people know they’re not optical illusions? Wouldn’t that be far more likely, anyway?  And even if the miracles had been real, why would that have constituted a proof for anything even then? Moses Maimonides (12th c. CE), foremost rabbinic authority of the Middle Ages, said it like this:

“Anyone who in those days (i.e. pre-Mosaic) laid claim to authority, based it... on the fact that, by reasoning and by proof he had been convinced of the existence of a Being who rules the whole Universe. …But no one could establish his claim on prophecy, that is to say, on the fact that G-d had spoken to him, or had entrusted a mission to him; before the days of Moses no such assertion had ever been made. You must not be misled by the statements that G-d spoke to the Patriarchs, or that He had appeared to them. For you do not find any mention of a prophecy which appealed to others, or which directed them. Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any other person before them did not tell the people, “G-d said to me, you shall do this, or you shall do that,” or “G-d has sent me to you.” Far from it! For G-d spoke to them on nothing but of what especially concerned them, i.e. He communicated to them things relating to their perfection, directed them in what they should do, and foretold them what the condition of their descendants would be; nothing beyond this. They guided their fellow men only by means of argument and instruction. (Guide for the Perplexed I:LXIII)”

So indeed, Moses was justifiably confused by the instruction, “Go persuade them by turning this staff into a magical cobra!”, and naturally responded, “The people will not believe in me. (Exodus 4:1)” Moses knew that his prophetic vision could not be objectively proved to anyone else as authentic— so what was the point?

So the Et-rnal One responds, “Yeah, you’re right. Turning your staff into a cobra doesn’t prove you’re a prophet, and plagues don’t either— but it will convince the Hebrew masses that you might be, and that will be enough to give them hope temporarily, for the time necessary. Once they see you receiving the Ten Commandments on Sinai, then they’ll have their absolute proof.”

The Code of Jewish Law states that miraculous feats constitute proof of nothing— this principle is axiomatic to Jewish thought, and is crucial to the legal process of halachic reasoning. It is very much for this reason that the Christian claim that Jesus’ wonder-working was a proof for his divinity, was routinely satirized by Jews even in medieval times; even by those Jews who thought that Jesus’ powers were real. “How do you know Jesus didn’t just slip some red dye into that water? And even if he did turn water to wine and heal lepers, so what? Even Pharaoh’s magicians could have done that! Aren’t you all ignoring the original fraction of necessarily false claims in your computation?!”

In contrast, the historical Hebrew claim is this: that when Moses received the Law on Sinai, the Ten Commandments were communicated to him through direct prophecy, and further, the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am THE L-RD and “No idolatry”) were communicated to the entire mass of 600,000 Israelites through prophecy as well. Therefore, there could be no doubts that Moses was a prophet, for not only did they all see and hear him receive the Law, and hear the ‘Voice’ he heard, but each one of them individually received the Law through prophetic communication as well, as a public body. BAZOOM! Proof.  Further, the historical Hebrew claim is that this experience constituted proof for succeeding generations as well. This is why the Code of Jewish Law quotes Devarim (Deuteronomy) in stating, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” This line, quoting Moses, was not addressed to the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt and who stood at Sinai, but to the 2nd generation, after the 1st one had passed away in the desert. It was to this generation, who had never been there, that Moses said, “G-d did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all here alive today.” As the 1st generation could surely have never faked such an event, even if they had wanted to, and as such an event could never be realistically fabricated by an individual and promulgated to the masses of Canaan (we were all slaves just 200 years ago, but then we all forgot, but luckily, Ari and Mendel rediscovered all this…), an indisputable historical tradition is treated in traditional Judaism as equivalent to a personal divine revelation, as far as proof is concerned.

Regarding the post-Mosaic prophets, i.e. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., there is still the question: how do we know they weren’t making it up? After all, they routinely performed miracles and made predictions concerning the future as proof of their prophetic abilities— and in contrast to the Mosaic model, their visions were private, just as much as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s visions were all private, or if you will, Jesus, Muhammad and Zoroaster. So how would they be distinct? Why would it have been illogical for Abraham to proclaim himself a prophet, but not Elijah?

The legal ruling from the Torah is that if any individual Israelite, who is of properly reputable character (i.e. a scholar or rabbi) claims a prophetic vision, and is able to predict the future and demonstrate his or her prophetic abilities to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin— then the Sanhedrin will legally declare the said individual to be a prophet, if the possibility of this Torah scholar being a charlatan is considered sufficiently negligible. Ultimately, the status of “prophet” for post-Mosaic Jewish leaders is not an article of faith, but a legal ruling. This is all so long as the would-be prophet does not contradict Mosaic Law. The Code of Jewish Law states it this way:

“We do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder he performs alone, as if to say: If he performs a miracle we will listen to everything he says. Rather, we believe him because it is a commandment which we were commanded by Moses who said: “If he performs a wonder, listen to him.”

Just as we are commanded to render a legal judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a commandment to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

Therefore, if a prophet arises and attempts to dispute Moses’ prophecy by performing great signs and wonders, we should not listen to him. We know with certainty that he performed those signs through magic or sorcery. This conclusion is reached because the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, is not dependent on wonders, so that we could compare these wonders, one against the other. Rather we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears as he did. (M.T., Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 8:3)” 

Yudkowsky’s assertion that the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal is an example of how ancient Jewry had no concept of how to ask factual questions is false. Knowledgeable Israelites (or even “mainstream” pious Israelites familiar with the Moses vs. Pharaoh account in the Torah) knew perfectly well that such contests yielded no factual information, and were only necessary as a temporary, extreme measure. The fact that the contest took place outside the Temple premises was itself a violation of Hebrew law, as Mosaic Law permits no sacrifices beyond Temple grounds— this was also a temporary measure taken by Elijah. Ultimately, the logical worthlessness of the contest later emerged, as the Israelites who were “won over” to Elijah’s side (the ones who gave the positive peer review) later regressed back to their pagan practices. Rabbinic commentaries to this account attest to this regression as an example of how miracles only constitute “proof” to the uneducated. The 450 priests of Baal, all being Jewish, were executed in accordance with the mandate of Judaic law (“A person who worships false gods is to be hanged”- M.T., Laws of Idolatrous Worship 2:6).

It is here that we’ll address the pink elephant in the room. How would Moses and all of the Israelites have known that what they were experiencing was authentic prophecy? We are still stuck with the Wizard of Oz dilemma: is the Voice divine, or a hallucination? Though the Hebrew historical claim is that all 600,000 Israelites received a prophetic communication all at once (rather than simply the claims of one individual), this does not necessarily alleviate the problem— because even though 600,000 individuals are statistically less likely than 1 individual to hallucinate, what if they were hallucinating (Yudkowsky touches on this problem in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality)? After all, there is very good documentation of cases of mass hysteria, complete with hallucinations, and has been known to affect up to thousands of people all at once. In fact, even if we assume that there was a good chance that the revelation on Sinai to the Hebrews was real, we would still have to admit that there have been many, many documented cases of mass hysteria, far outnumbering the number of times the Jews have claimed to have had experienced public, divine revelation (so far numbering exactly 1).

It would not fully negate the hallucination possibility, to assert that historical Judaism considered prophecy to be a mental ability that comes as a result of intellectual preparation, and that ancient Jewry regarded prophecy as the consequence of decades of intellectual study (knowledge of science was requisite, says the Code of Jewish Law) and of meditative practice (in the Talmud, meditation schools are recorded to have existed). Describing Hebrew prophecy as a primarily intellectual experience more similar to the nirvana of an Indian bodhisattva, than the emotional ecstasy of a Greek oracle, would not be enough to fully negate the possibility of mass hysteria. This is especially so, considering that the tradition of the revelation on Sinai is the one exception in Jewish recorded history of intellectually unprepared Israelites experiencing prophecy (thus the reason the Torah describes them all as temporarily dying after the 2nd Commandment being given). So how do we know if it was enlightened prophecy, or madness they were experiencing? The fact that Judaism is the only religion in history to have never experienced internal ideological schism in its formative stages of development does not fully negate the possibility of hallucination either— at least from a probabilistic standpoint.

But then again, historical theory is not a laboratory science. You cannot test it and make observations— you can only check a historical theory for consistencies and inconsistencies. Analyzing historical theories using probabilistic theorems is usually extremely difficult, and I fully agree with Judea Pearl’s opinion that real events in time can only be understood in terms of causality. Therefore, I would argue that the Wizard of Oz is mostly the result of statistical reasoning being applied to a scenario that requires a primarily cause-and-effect approach; because even if the Orthodox approach does produce some Wizards, that is nothing compared to the number of Wizards produced by a materialistic, reductionist approach.

The Grand Rabbi of Guadalajara points out that according to reductionist approaches to Jewish history that deny the Torah’s authenticity, the Jews would have to be either

(a) (B)y far the most ingenious people ever. Out of all the peoples of the ancient world, this nation of shepherds and fig-growers came up with the classic work of all time. The work that changed all of history, brought us the concepts of creation ex-nihilo, history, purpose, monotheism, providence, human rights, gave rise to both Christianity and Islam and triggered the Reformation and modernization of western civilization… A supremacy dogma if I ever heard one!


(b) According to this theory, the Jews are by far the stupidest and most gullible people in the world. They fell for a story that restricts their diet, their domination over their slaves, their weekly work habits and their sex-life beyond what any other nation would tolerate. They bought into a lose-lose situation for everybody all ‘round: The King’s power is restricted, the priestly class cannot own land, and the commoners can’t sell it.

They abandon their fields and towns three times a year to the mercy of the hostile nations surrounding them, let those fields lie fallow once in seven years, let their slaves go free after six years, don’t charge interest -- and just trust year after year that everything will be okay. After all, G-d promises that when you’re planning to leave your land fallow in the seventh, He’ll give you a bumper crop in the sixth. So tell me, what happens when one year this just doesn’t work out? Do you leave that in the books you’re writing?

Furthermore, this theory has the Jewish people making up fables about their blunders in full detail. They declare that they descend from slaves! They tell nasty stories about the forefather of their priestly class, Levi— even though the Levites were supposed to have written the book. The original high priest gets his hands dirty in the biggest scandal of their history. Who is this fable serving, anyway? Why on earth would anyone want to make up such a story? And what sort of crazy people would want to preserve it?”

It is here, then, that I will conclude Section Three in mostly the same way it started. The ancient Israelites were not incapable of understanding factual questions, nor were they ignorant of rational analysis. The concepts of objective evidence and rational apprehension are seen in the Torah itself, and continued on into the era of the Prophets and Writings, the development of halachic reasoning in the Mishnah, the development of Talmudic hermeneutics, and the development of Kabbalah and Jewish Philosophy. Yudkowsky’s claim that factual inquiry into religious matters is a strictly modern, Western concept is incorrect.

As a brief aside: Yudkowsky states that Rome had concepts of law and order, and he seems to contrast this with Jewry. As Max Dimont’s research has strongly indicated, it was the Hebrews who were the originators of the concepts of due process and presumption of innocence in a court of law— not the Romans.    

Section Four: The author claims that contemporary religionists justify false opinions by claiming that their religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.        

I believe that Yudkowsky’s assertion here is partially correct; but first, the subject being discussed should be clarified. The principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) was first introduced into the public science vs. religion debates by Stephen Jay Gould in the late 1990s, with the term “magisterium” being borrowed by Gould from Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, which discussed Catholicism’s views on natural evolution. In Gould’s conception,

“(T)he magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). (Rock of Ages, 1999)”

To a degree, Yudkowsky is of course correct in stating that Judaism never originally had a concept of religion as a distinct magisteria, and that most other religions never did, either. I would extend this to include contemporary Judaism too, and would argue that Judaism has always been “a religion without Mysteries,” as Shmuel Luzzato put it.

However, though Judaism does not posit any intrinsically incomprehensible Mysterious Answers that are incapable of being logically deduced at all (ex. Catholic transubstantiation), it does nonetheless posit that there are matters, when contemplated, that cannot be fully comprehended by the intellect, and therefore do occupy non-rational magisteria in a certain manner. This is not a modern phenomenon, and has always been present in Hebrew thought (“I AM THAT I AM” says G-d to Moses in Exodus, for instance). The Alter Rebbe z”l, in his descriptions of Divine unity, wrote:

“(I)t is not at all proper to ascribe to G-d anything that is appurtenant to intellect  even in a very lofty and sublime form, as if to say of G-d that it is beyond the  capacity of any higher or lower creature to comprehend Divine Intellect or Essence. For comprehension pertains and applies to a matter of knowledge and wisdom, about which one can say that it can or cannot be understood because of the profundity of the concept. But, it is not at all proper to say concerning The Blessed Holy One, Who transcends intellect and wisdom, that it is impossible to apprehend G-d because of the depth of the concept, for G-d is not even within the realm of comprehension at all. (Shaar Yichud v'Emunah, 1797)”

 This is seemingly about as distinct-magisterium-ish as it gets, and I’d imagine that it is statements like this one that cause Yudkowsky to make analogies between G-d and invisible, inaudible, permeable dragons dwelling in one’s garage.

 The distinction between G-d and the dragon, I’d argue, is more easily appreciated from an existential standpoint than a probabilistic one. Within Judaism, matters that are treated as being incapable of being fully comprehended by the mind are always, exclusively, of an existential nature. The essence of G-d, the nature of the soul, free will, the nature of good and evil, etc., are all treated as being incapable of being fully understood, and these are all existential concerns (and there is no concept of comprehension at all in Judaism concerning the ultimate essence of G-d). In contrast, historical claims such as the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, and purely theological claims such as paradise & purgatory, reincarnation and the like, are not treated as occupying a distinct magisterium. They are considered fully comprehendible to the intellect, with the latter at the very least from utilizing philosophical reasoning.

 Furthermore, even concerning those subjects that cannot be fully fathomed from the Jewish perspective, such subjects are grouped into that separate magisterium as a direct result of rationally acquired knowledge. For instance, in Jewish thought, the origin of evil is regarded as being incapable of being completely fathomed— not as a result of reflexive reasoning or a retreat to commitment, but due to an intellectual understanding that evil exists, and that simultaneously the matter cannot be fully fathomed. This is often referred to as yedias ha-shelilah, or negative knowledge, i.e. knowledge by negative inference, exceeding the boundaries of structured thought. Yedias ha-shelilah, in turn, can only be acquired once one acquires bittul, or the negation of preconceived notions and biases.

 There is then the glaring question, “Why is assuming the existence, or even the statistically significant possibility, that there is such a thing as the non-intellectual, rationally justifiable or desirable?”, but that would bring me to—


Section Five: The author claims that the Torah’s views on legislation, government, history, sexual morals, science, and ethics are outdated, in light of what Yudkowsky describes as human advancement.  

It is far beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the viability of the Torah’s views on every popularly debated ethical and academic subject. However, two things:

First, it is only inevitable that ontological reductionism leads to ethical and existential nihilism. There is no materialistic reductionist approach to human nature, whether it is transhumanism, utilitarian hedonism, or Marxist sociology, which is capable of avoiding this problem. Nihilism is inevitable in any worldview that promotes that “G-d is dead,” and it is absurd to claim that anyone endorsing any religious or non-reductionist approach to existence should be considered worthy of public ridicule, but one who promotes the “transcendence” of our humanity through self-selected, voluntary eugenics by reforming our minds in the image of computer technology, should be respected as “rationalists” (no offense intended, SIAI fans). To quote an American playwright who put it this way,

With the exception of a few powerful, dissenting voices, the nineteenth century was almost unanimous in its belief that the ascent of science was a guarantee of the moral improvement of man. As the sworn rationalists gleefully kept destroying man’s belief in G-d, they kept proclaiming their belief in man. Man, on the one hand, was depicted as an advanced outgrowth of the monkey, but, on the other hand, was proclaimed as a creature who can ‘rationally’ work out his own salvation. Vladimir Soloviev, the great Russian philosopher, expressed the incompatibility of scientific optimism about man with man’s proclaimed biological inferiority in a marvelously ironic phrase: ‘Man,’ said Soloviev, ‘is a descendant of monkeys; he can therefore be relied upon to bring about a period of happiness and progress to mankind.’

‘Reductionist science, which for a couple of centuries hammered away at the idea that man is “nothing but” his biological components, did not realize that such a man would be a reduced man, a “nothing but-nick,” to use an expression of Viktor Frankl. And it is not only specialization that brought about this state—specialization is inevitable in a technological life order—but totalization: the idea that there is something akin to universality about the totality of specialization. What is dangerous, Dr. Frankl writes, is the attempt of a man who is an expert, say, in the field of biology, to understand and explain human beings exclusively in terms of biology. At the moment at which totality is claimed for the part, Dr. Frankl argues, biology becomes biologism, psychology becomes psychologism, and sociology becomes sociologism. In other words, at that moment, science is reduced to ideology. Dr. Frankl tells us in his Will to a Meaning that he once came across a quotation defining man as “nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information.” … (I)n a certain sense the statement is valid: Man is a computer. However, at the same time, he is infinitely more than a computer! The statement is fatally erroneous insofar as it defines man as nothing but a computer. (Zvi Kolitz, 1982)”  


Secondly, the thing that people often popularly refer to as “Old Testament” ethics is usually nothing more than a common misunderstanding of what the historical Jewish approach to ethics has always really been like, and such misunderstandings are often misused as trump cards in public religion vs. science debates.  


Since Yudkowsky mentions it, let’s use slavery as an example. There is a popular notion that the Torah, and by association the New Testament, endorses slavery as being morally okay. This is often held up in contrast to the contemporary, enlightened Western world, where it is assumed that everybody knows that slavery is of course unethical. This is a very popular trump card in public debate surrounding religion, and it is common to hear statements such as, “Why trust the Bible is right when it says ‘no-gay-marriage,’ when the Bible says slavery is just fine?” Most people, having little factual knowledge of the Tanakh (including most religious Americans), assume that the information being presented in the trump card is accurate. Which is understandable— it sounds logical to assume a priori that Iron Age Near Eastern tribes thought slavery was ethically permissible.

For starters, there is a little-known principle in Jewish thought, that many of the Torah’s laws are designed to bring about the gradual elimination of certain societal evils, rather than their immediate elimination, for the purpose of pragmatism and realistic goals for societal change. Put more precisely,   

“On considering the Divine acts, or the processes of Nature, we get an insight into the prudence and wisdom of G-d as displayed in the creation of animals, with the gradual development of the movements of their limbs and the relative positions of the latter, and we perceive also His wisdom and plan in the successive and gradual development of the whole condition of each individual. The gradual development of the animals’ movements and the relative position of the limbs may be illustrated by the brain, etc… When such an animal is born it is extremely tender, and cannot be fed with dry food. Therefore breasts were provided which yield milk, and the young can be fed with moist food which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the latter have gradually become dry and hard.

Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.

... I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for G-d to change the nature of every individual person; on the contrary, it is possible, and it is in His power, according to the principles taught in the Law; but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change at His desire the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous. (Guide for the Perplexed III: XXXII)”


This principle of Jewish thought is often applied to issues such as economic inequality, monarchic rule, capital punishment, the status of women, and animal sacrifice, as well as other issues. The Torah’s approach to slavery, for most of Jewish history, has always been understood in accordance with this principle, the idea generally being that servitude was often a tragic economic necessity and hence a necessary evil. Therefore, the Torah’s restrictions on slavery were understood as having the long-term goal of eliminating slavery altogether, but gradually: hence the Torah’s ban on possessing an individual slave for more than seven years, thereby preventing generational slavery; the ban on physically harming a slave; the ban on sexual relations with one’s slaves; the ban on involuntary slavery, and the requirement that they be indentured; the requirement that your slaves must live with you in your home, and eat the same food you eat, etc. The statement in the Talmud (Kiddushin 20a): “Whoever acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires a master!” is logically derived from these rules in the Torah, as is the statement in the Mishnah, “Make the poor into servants in your household, (Pirkei Avos)” which warns against enslaving the poor without monetary compensation.

However, the clearest admonitions against slavery usually come from the Tanakh itself. For instance,  

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for (no more than) six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything... But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my (assigned) wife and children, and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost, and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life (until the Jubilee year). (Exodus 21: 2-6)


The classical commentator Rashi (11th c. CE) explains why a Jew who sells himself or herself into slavery is given such a severe corporeal punishment, even though the action of selling oneself into indentured servitude is itself permitted by the Torah. Rashi cites the Mishnah, writing,


“Now, why was the ear chosen to be bored out of all the organs of the body? ... Referring to one who sold himself into servitude, the reason is that the ear that heard, ‘For the children of Israel are servants to Me’ (Leviticus 25:55) and then went and acquired a master for himself, this ear shall be bored. Rabbi Shimon interpreted this verse in a beautiful manner: Why were the door and the doorpost singled out from all the fixtures in the house? The Holy One, blessed is He, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said, ‘For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants,’ but they are not servants to servants, and yet, this one went and acquired for himself a master! Therefore his ear shall be bored, for everyone to see. (from Talmud, Kiddushin 22b)”


The classical Talmudic interpretations of the Torah’s laws concerning slavery strongly indicate an understanding that servitude, even if voluntarily chosen for oneself, is morally debasing. Furthermore, the reason for abhorring slavery is equally significant: freely chosen socio-political liberty is a necessary prerequisite to be able to serve G-d, for such service requires both physical liberty as well as the mentality of a free person, since slavery is regarded as spiritually and intellectually debilitating (Ex. "So says the G-d of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me!").


Such admonitions ultimately had their inevitable effect. Slavery was uncommon among Jews even by the time of the Roman Empire, was entirely avoided by the Essenes, and was branded as equivalent to idolatry by the Zealots, leading Elazar ben Yair to famously state at Masada:


“Long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone other than G-d... The time has now come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves. Hitherto we have never submitted to slavery... We must not choose slavery now... For we were the first to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is G-d who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men... In our case it is evident that daybreak will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle.


Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery. After that let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first, let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames. It will be a bitter blow to the Roman, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare— our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because...we chose death rather than slavery....”


Given all of this, the popular contention that the Torah endorses slave-ownership is difficult to defend. This is especially so, considering that the modern Western world generally does consider the revocation of personal liberties through imprisonment to be a morally permissible method of punishing criminals, and the practice of imprisoning criminals is recognized as a form of slavery by the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In fact, the practice of coerced, involuntary servitude as a punishment for criminals probably receives more moral sanction from the U.S. Constitution than it does from the Torah, which prescribes financial penalties, sacrificial atonement offerings, corporeal punishment and capital punishment as penalties for crime, without any mention of the practice of long-term incarceration.


To bring everything back around: Yudkowsky’s severe critiques of religion, notably Judaism,   are generally false— even concerning demonstrable facts much of the time, and are inconsistent with Less Wrong’s efforts to promote the rational overcoming of intellectual self-deception and bias. Rationality does not necessitate the rejection of all religious philosophy, nor the intellectual denial of G-d. To end with one more quote,


There was a growing conviction (in the 19th century) that science could be relied on to provide a secure rational foundation for all of our ethical and moral standards. The philosophical roots of this conviction can be traced to Greek philosophy, … Greek philosophy thus relied on human reason to derive moral and ethical principles from the nature of things, rather than from G-d, as the Hebrews believe. An ethics thus divorced from G-d is autonomous.

‘Morally speaking, my friends, the shtetl Jew of Eastern Europe was without peer in the history of communal morality. Poverty-stricken, oppressed, hated, mocked, woefully lacking in aesthetics, the shtetl Jew reached heights of ethical and moral purity that made crime in his midst unthinkable and social indifference impossible. Nobody starved in the poor shtetl, and nobody was denied the opportunity to acquire knowledge, a much more sought-after and much more respected commodity than money…

Now, why did this come to pass? Why did poverty and oppression, which usually breed crime, breed, in the mud of the shtetl, purity of heart as a mass phenomenon?

‘Believing, as the shtetl Jews did, that ethical behavior is G-d centered, they took G-d as their measure. … Our entire history bears witness before G-d and man that ethics become a way of life—not a fossilized thought, but a way of life—only when they are G-d derived. …That is precisely what Dostoyevsky had in mind when he said, ‘If there is no G-d, murder is permissible.’ Abraham, as we must always remember, said it more than four millennia earlier: ‘There is no awe of G-d in this land, and whoever finds me may slay me.”