Scientific naturalism and rationality meets Judaism

All posts in this series:

Welcome to the front page of a blog about one of the most profound experiences in my life.

My whole life I have considered myself an atheist, a rationalist and a naturalist and in many ways still do.

I have read all blog-posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky, am a fan of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (although mainly for The Selfish Gene), I have a PhD in mathematics and a master’s degree in cognitive science in which my main objective is to ‘naturalize’ the mind.

So you wouldn’t immediately expect that… on May 13, 2019 I arrived to a yeshiva in Morristown, NJ. This yeshiva is an orthodox Jewish, Hasidic religious school and I am going to study Judaism here full-time for four weeks.

What’s going on?

This blog is going to be dedicated to answering this question. But not only by myself, but with your help. I hope this blog will facilitate discussion in the comments below and below each post. So please, participate 😄!

Partially paraphrasing Wikipedia, naturalism states that nature encompasses all that exists throughout space and time; nature (the universe or cosmos) consists only of natural elements. Non-material substance, such as information, ideas, values, logic, mathematics, intellect, and other such phenomena are emergent and either supervene upon the physical or can be (at least ontologically) reduced to a physical account. Note that what counts as “physical” or “natural” may vary depending on the most recent scientific understanding of the world. Today it would mostly be quarks, electrons, protons and things like the gravitational field.

I also have roots in Judaism, because I am ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish – by my mother. However, I never had Jewish upbringing – neither religious nor even traditional. Jewishness, Jewish mentality, temperament, values and some sort of vitality that is often characteristic of Jews is something that I find very appealing and close to me. At this point, it would seem, these things (mentality, temperament and values) don’t have anything to do with whether I am an atheist naturalist or not, but they do have something to do with whether I am Jewish or not. So far no contradiction between Judaism and naturalism, yay!

The main purpose of the stay in yeshiva and writing this blog is to learn more about Judaism and to research questions such as “What is Judaism and how can it help me to realize my potential?”, “Is it possible to reconcile Judaism with naturalism?”, “How to take the most out of Judaism in terms of wisdom, lifestyle and values while maintaining intellectual and psychological integrity?” and (added 2019-05-23) “What can I give to Judaism?”, “If I can reformulate the idea of God so that I understand it, how can I best serve God?”

More specifically,

  • How can I find significance in Jewish mythology, lifestyle and philosophy without a contradiction to naturalism? Or should I find a completely new approach to things?  I am inspired by Jordan Peterson’s lecture series The psychological significance of biblical stories. Can I find psychologically significant material here in yeshiva?
  • Connect to my family roots. I am Jewish, but I don’t know anything about Judaism. Let’s learn!
  • Is there a way to understand God in naturalistic terms? Recently I began to think that it is indeed possible. At the same time I have begun thinking that it is actually unnecessary, i.e. not worthwile.
  • Jewish Rabbis are some of the most grounded people in the world with great and contagious vitality. Not excluding my dear friend Rabbi Benyamin Wolff, who is hopefully reading this! How can I learn from that? Can I find this energy inside of me?
  • How can I get as much personal growth as possible?
  • Can I (and should I?) isolate wisdom from delusion in the spirit of Sam Harris’ project Spirituality without religion?

I cannot possibly write everything that is going through my mind here in Yeshiva, because I am studying for 10 hours a day and writing only for 30 minutes a day; below please find my blog posts.

UPDATE (2019-05-23): I have now written about 5 blog posts and received extremely valuable feedback and support from my friends. It may seem above that I am “trying to get” something valuable “for me” out from Judaism. If it was only so (and at times it is), it would be a principled contradiction to the Jewish system. Judaism is not about the benefit to the individual. Judaism is about serving God, and the benefit to the individual is only a potential by-product. So if my attitude is that I want to become better myself, it might be the main problem I am facing here. I will discuss this issue in a later post.

30 replies
  1. Hankering
    Hankering says:

    By following habits of religion (any religion), one makes oneself less free, intellectually, spiritually and also politically. To what extent this is true in your or anyone’s case, I encourage to be hostile towards religion. Learn about religion by all means, but do not your longing of belonging affect your beautiful mind.

    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      Thank you! Sometimes constrains make one more free. An artist can’t paint before she decides whether to paint on canvas or on paper. Constraint is required to be creative. Mathematics is a prototype of constraint creativity. You should know! 😉 I still understand what you mean!

    • Mendel Greenberg
      Mendel Greenberg says:

      I’d be forced to disagree, religion (and in my case Judiasm) allows one to live life without going insane from what happens around him. Because he knows that there is a g-d who is running the world and that he is only looking out for what’s best for us, one can truly feel freedom, he’s not limited by pure chance.

  2. Ita
    Ita says:

    Thank you Vadim for including us in your journey! I look forward to following it with you. Cheering you on always!

  3. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    If you have time, can you try to explain how you think it might be possible to understand god in naturalistic terms? I have been wondering it too. It is okay if you dont feel like explaining it, im not sure i would. Thanks.

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