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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Maimonides, Boethius and Freewill

It strikes me that the solution proposed by Maimonides to the freewill problem has been wrongly equated with the solution put forward by Boethius. In what follows, I try to explain how the two proposals differ. I’d love to hear people’s feedback on this, as I’m no real Maimonides scholar. Have other people noted this difference? Do let me know.
The freewill problem, in its medieval formulation, arises from the fact that our free will seems to be incompatible with God’s foreknowledge. The problem can be stated as follows:
  1. A being with a free will often has the choice between two mutually exclusive actions, action x and action y, at some time, t.
  2. God is omniscient, and therefore knows that I will chose to perform, say, action x at time t.
  3. Knowledge is factive, which is to say that it’s either a relation between a mind and a fact, or at least, a relation between a mind and a true proposition; a proposition made true by a fact. Knowledge is, therefore, always accompanied by the existence of a fact.
  4. Given 3, if God knows that I will perform action x at time t, then it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t.
  5. If it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t, then I cannot choose to perform action y at the same time.
  6. Therefore, I am not a free being with control over the course of my own life. Given any choice, I am always bound to act in the way that God already knows that I will act.

Review of Ze'ev Maghen's "John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage" (Bottom Books 2011)

Reviewed by Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy, Connecticut College: apessin@conncoll.edu

John Lennon and the Jews (JL&J) is an extremely original and significant book. It should be read by every Jew, no matter where he or she stands on the long spectrum between strict religious observance and determined rejection of the same. Maghen -- an American-born Israeli scholar of Islamic law but also something of a Talmid chacham and general know-everything-but-not-in-an-arrogant-way sort of guy -- has literally invented a new genre of writing, aptly self-titled the “philosophical rampage,” which might best be described as the literary equivalent of three parts strong coffee, two parts Red Bull, and one part nuclear fusion. You pick this thing up and it practically supernovas right in your hand. And if you can hold on you are in for a heck of a ride, whoever you are.

In its very high-energy and entertaining way that is philosophically informed throughout, JL&J basically addresses the question of why, if you're Jewish, you should be Jewish, i.e. make your Jewishness a flourishing part of your identity – despite the fact that stressing your affiliation with an ancient tribe seems, in this 21st century, to be not merely outdated and inconvenient but even downright irrational. Why be Jewish, after all, when there are so many other wonderful things you can be: modern, progressive, scientific, secular, multicultural, an American, a European (etc.), a Citizen of the World, or maybe just an individual devoid of all labels, period? But Maghen is rightly aware that this sort of question cannot be addressed properly without quickly ranging deeply into issues of very general philosophical interest and urgency.

Evidence and the Exodus

posted on behalf of Yehudah Gellman

Sometimes, absence of evidence for p does not count as evidence for not-p. So, there being an absence of evidence for, say, that there are 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem does not count as evidence that there are not 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem. At other times, however, absence of evidence for p does count as evidence for not-p. So, that there are no signs of footprints in the mud is not only an absence of evidence that somebody has just recently walked in the mud, but is evidence that nobody has walked there. The difference seems to be this:

The absence of evidence for p is evidence for not-p when - were p true, then there would be evidence for p.

The more evidence there should be for p and there is not, the more evidence there is that not-p.

In what follows I will refer to natural evidence, independent of religious authority as simply "evidence."
The conclusion I want to argue for is that regard to the biblical story of the stay of the Israelites in Egypt, and their exodus from Egypt, their sojourn in the desert, and invasion of Canaan, (hereafter: The Exodus Story) we have strong evidence that the story did not take place. And the argument is this: If the story did take place, we would have strong evidence in its favor. But none of the evidence that should exist does exist. Therefore, we have strong evidence against the truth of the story.