Monday, October 12, 2009

Theories of Judaism and Rawls' Reflective Equilibrium

Jews tend to cluster around certain general understandings of Judaism, like Orthodoxy, secular or cultural Judaism, or ignorance and apathy. Other understandings, like moderate Conservativism tend to be less stable, with its adherents sometimes towards one of the other extremes. And when people make changes in their religious beliefs and practices, they often do so in large steps rather than gradually: Orthodox Jews go "off the derech" and secular Jews become Orthodox. In other words, Jewish religious beliefs tend to be "lumpy." Why?

One possible answer comes from the idea of "reflective equilibrium", a phenomenon explained by noted philosopher John Rawls. (My co-blogger Diane studied with Rawls; unlike me, she actually knows something.)

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explained the idea of reflective equilibrium. He noted that people tend to start with both general theoretical ideas and some particular judgments. These may conflict, and when they do, we modify either our theoretical beliefs or our particular conclusions and then think some more. As long as conflicts remain, we are not in reflective equilibrium, and we repeat the process. However, once we reach a point where our general theory and our particular judgments are consistent with each other, we are in reflective equilibrium and we are satisfied with both.

One implication of this theory is that once we have reached reflective equilibrium, our beliefs tend to support each other. That is, particular beliefs (either general ideas or concrete conclusions) cannot be modified in isolation. The whole system of general beliefs and specific conclusions hangs together, and it is difficult to simply make a slight modification. (We don't see Orthodox Jews observing 612 mitzvot, but skipping (say) putting up a mezuzah.)

Another implication is that beliefs tend to be robust. That is, it is difficult to get people to change. A particular problem does not challenge only one small aspect of beliefs, but the entire system, and the system has a lot of intellectual inertia.

We see this robustness in religious discussions. When a traditional Orthodox Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of needless suffering, modern bible scholarship, evolution, 2 million people wandering in Sinai, Noah's flood), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. Similarly, when a secular Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of consciousness, the "Torah Codes", the inconsistency between going to synagogue on Yom Kippur and not observing other mitzvot), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. (Note: I am not making any claims regarding these arguments themselves; I am simply noting how people respond.)

A third implication is that some belief systems are relatively stable, and others are relatively unstable. As a very general matter, I see three stable and one semi-stable belief system.

The stable belief systems:

Orthodoxy: God entered into an eternal covenant with the Jewish people and gave us the Torah as binding instructions for life. Jews should do all the mitzvot and devote their lives to Judaism.

Slightly Observant and Barely Religious: Authentic Judaism is Orthodoxy, and we do not want any part of that. Judaism consists of ancient bizarre rituals and stories that no sensible person would take seriously. But it is mostly harmless, and might have some beneficial aspects, like teaching children general ethics and social responsibility, lifecycle rituals, and innocuous holidays like Chanukah and Passover. So we will send our kids to religious school at a Reform or Conservative synagogue to "get bar-mitzvahed," but we'll quit after that.
But we're not going to do the second half of the seder, our Yom Kippur fasting will probably stop when we get hungry, we're not going to read the Torah or any book about Judaism for that matter, and we've never heard of Shavuot and don't really care.

Hostile and Non-Observant: Judaism is just silly. We don't belief in God. We don't need religion for ethics, and the whole thing just upsets me. Religious people are deluded and foolish.

The semi-stable belief system:

Religious and Moderately Observant: We have an non-traditional understanding of both God and Torah. We take Judaism seriously. We observe enough mitzvot that our liberal Jewish friends think we are nuts (or might even be Orthodox!). But we do not observe enough mitzvot that our Orthodox friends think we are heretics. Unlike everyone else, our answers to simple religious questions involve long and complicated answers. We like contradictory slogans like "Tradition and Change."

The obvious reason why the last belief system (which is mine, BTW) is only semi-stable is that it is balancing between competing contradictory ideas, and if that balance gets unbalanced, we run off to one of the extremes. (Although we gain some flexibility, and things like atheism, agnosticism, theism, bible criticism, the existence of suffering or evil tend not to require huge shifts in our belief system.)

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