This post is part of the series “Scientific Naturalism and Rationality Meets Judaism“.

What is Heart For? On Metaphysical Contradictions.

Radical nihilism is the conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values one recognizes;
F. Nietzsche

The term nihilism is often described as a state in which a person has rejected the validity of any values. Originally, however, Nietzsche meant by nihilism, or at least by “radical nihilism” something deeper than that. Point is not the rejection of the values. Point is that the values that one cherishes the most, one recognizes to be untenable. An example could be if a mother recognizes that logically her child is not more precious than other children, while on the level of feelings and actions she is still holding her child to be the most valuable. If one starts taking the “logical” account more and more seriously, one may end up in radical nihilism. One reason for me to be interested in Judaism is because I don’t want to end up in radical nihilism, i.e. I don’t want to give into the temptation to think that “all life is meaningless”, even though it may be a logical conclusion (or maybe it’s not, but I don’t even want to try to find out.. wait… I have already tried :O). Why not give into it? Because then I will either still continue to feel and act as if life is meaningful, in which case I will experience a chronic contradiction and get depressed, or I will actually feel and act as if life is meaningless and again get depressed.  Disjunction elimination => I will get depressed. But Judaism doesn’t come lightly. What if Judaism itself will render some (or all?) of my highest values as untenable? That would be a hell of a thing. It will definitely render some of my values untenable (and if you know me well enough, then you know some of those :D). I am afraid of that too, but that’s fine, it is part of the growth process. But I am much more afraid to lose my highest values, to lose what I am

That’s the same reason why I was afraid to come to yeshiva in the first place and why I thought that it is very important for me to start this blog and have my atheist-minded friends read it. I feel that intrinsically religion has so much potential for me to offer that it would turn me into a SUPERHERO – if only I accepted it. On the other hand, I feel, that if I accept it “blindly”, then it will crush me. What I am trying to do here in Yeshiva, is to understand what’s the middle way, or what’s the synthesis, or … how else to go about it.

Last Sunday we had a “farbrengen”. Most of my readers won’t know what this means, so let me explain. On a night of farbrengen, after the evening prayers, Jews sit down around a table and will sing songs and discuss wise ideas, sometimes even dance. The way it is happening here in yeshiva is that there is always one wise “guru” Rabbi who is leading the farbrengen; he is the one telling stories and answering questions. Everyone else is listening, commenting and asking. Here’s a couple of pictures:

This is all awesome. Sharing words of wisdom and saying “l’haim” (i.e. drinking some vodka). It was a lot of fun, especially by the end. The ideas that Rabbi Schein shared with us were beautiful and I will share one of them below. However, there were moments in which I felt really really bad, sick to my stomack. Let me try to explain why. It has something to do with the idea of divine providence and that “everything happens for a reason“. Before coming here, honestly, I thought that only teenage girls are capable of uttering such statements with a 100% conviction.

It is known that one of the triggers of depression is when a person loses something precious to him or her. When a ballerina loses her ability to dance, when a movie director can’t produce movies anymore and when a violinist loses his hand.

In the environment I am in, I often feel as if I am a musician losing a hand. I want to partake in the wisdom and in the joy of the Hasidic lifestyle. I want to sing and learn all day long. I even feel how I am 100% the right material for such things. Again, if you know me, you know, that studying 12 hours and then singing and drinking is PRECISELY what I do anyway. But at times I have the feeling that to do that in a wholeheartedly hasidic way, I would have to give up something way too precious for me. Maybe it is not true, and I certainly hope so.

I am a scientist and it has always been of utmost importance to me that we confess our ignorance, that we look at the world with the humbleness, curiosity and openness characteristic of little children. The greatest feelings of awe in my life I have experienced (among a few other things) when I meditate upon how fascinating it is that the stars just are there going about there own business, governed by gravity and other laws of nature and that our planet is but a tiny blue rock somewhere in the midst of the galaxies. A grain in the sand. I am fascinated about evolution of all the living on our planet. The biggest awe of all I experience at the questions “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “How can consciousness be a result of evolution or of physical processes in general?”.

The central theme in Hasidism, however, is that God created the world (obviously) and that everything goes according to God’s plan. Jordan Peterson would probably say that “this is SUCH a BRILLIANT IDEA”. And yes, he would say it in capital letters. Well I don’t know how brilliant it is, but it makes all nature and life seem much more of a boring and mundane phenomenon as far as I am concerned. The Sun, the Moon, the stars and the clouds have been put here by God so that JEWS could exercise their free will and do their mitzvot (a mitzvah in Hebrew means a commandment by God; mitzvot is plural). Of course I am caricaturing a bit, but not as much as you might think. And the reason that this makes me sick is not only that it contradicts my basic understanding of the world and that if I was to believe this, it would take away some of the most precious things I have. I can’t really explain what it is. Maybe it is the ultimate certainty with which these Rabbis say these things. And they’re not stupid, I can tell you that. And moreover they seem to find the same awe in “God created humans and their souls” as I find in “How on earth does brain give rise to consciousness?”.

The legend has it that people hated Newton for giving a physical explanation for the rainbow, because it took away their awe of mystery. But for me, Newton made more awe, awe of science!

Now, I really want to understand what’s going on. So perhaps there is a bridge?  So I try. But I am already tired of asking “Is this a metaphor?” because the answer, almost invariably, is “No, this is not a metaphor.” Like in
“God created the world in 7 days.”,
“Is this a metaphor?”,
“No, this is not a metaphor.”

Here is the beautiful idea shared by Rabbi Schein. Why is human’s heart on the left side of the body? He asks. Right hand is usually the strongest one and the right side is the “leading” side. So why didn’t God put heart – such an important organ – on the right side? Or at least in the middle, like the nose? The answer is the following. The function of the heart is to express goodness, kindness and love to other people. So it is on your left side so that it could be on the right side of the other person – allegedly the person whom you love is standing facing you. This is to remind us that true kindness is never about you, but about the other person (then we transgress to basically discuss what is “true altruism” without using the word ‘altruism’ – who knows why, is it a Christian word? Or too scientific? idk).

I found this idea beautiful. I didn’t want to ask whether he means it as a metaphor, because I didn’t want to ruin the whole thing for myself. If he had said that it’s not, it would. Next day, however, I approached another Rabbi and asked him whether this heart-on-the-left-idea is meant as a metaphor.  And perhaps “a metaphor” is a wrong word. Maybe there should be a separate word for “spiritual metaphors” or something. The answer was the following.

We believe that everything has a reason. God put heart on the left side, so there must be a reason for that. Whether the reason is this or something else, we don’t know, we can only guess.

Now, this is already a little bit better. The second part (that we can only guess) I find nice. The first part, however, is still sickening me. To believe that everything in the world has a reason is an unbelievably comforting thought. When I only begin imagining that I truly believed that, it makes me feel almost euphoric. But I know (do I?) that it cannot be the case. I guess that’s where my fairly strong atheism kicks in.

The line between believing in divine providence on the one hand, and behaving as if there was divine providence on the other, is quite vague. Here is what I mean. Suppose a storm attacks my city and houses will be ruined. Suppose one person says “This is an act of God. It is part of God’s plan. It was meant to happen. It happened for a reason.” Suppose another person says “This happened, so there is no going back. It will not help to be bitter or angry about it. Let’s find what we can learn from this, can we prevent this next time, and in general, how can we grow from this?”

As far as I can tell, practically these two are saying the same thing: “Don’t be an idiot and don’t make your life even more miserable than it already is. Stop whining and grow the hell up!” However, the first is making a gigantic metaphysical commitment while the second doesn’t. The advantage of the metaphysical commitment, is that it creates a framework of thought, a way of comprehending the world which automatically helps to have the “right” attitude to many many situations. One student here said to me that the feelings of happiness, sadness and depression get a completely different flavor once you start believing in divine providence.

But let me share a more detailed analysis of metaphysical commitments.

If you are a scientist, you might be OK with saying that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood.

But this also presupposes a metaphysical significance of the heart. In fact, it would be metaphysically less committing (and in my opinion more accurate) to say that the heart co-evolved with our organism the way it did, because (roughly speaking) those organisms whose heart didn’t pump died before procreation! But there is no purpose or teleology in evolution. It is us, who conceptualize heart as if it had a purpose. It is a human-conceptualization of the heart that it’s purpose is to pump blood. Does my heart have a cosmic purpose? I tend to doubt it. But nevertheless, it makes sense to everyone involved (including Richard Dawkings, I presume) to say that “the purpose of the heart is to pump blood”. It is only if we start getting into philosophical nitty-gritty details that we may realize that this is actually just a metaphor, or a figure of speech and so on, but we will still immediately go back to talking about the purpose of the heart. It is almost similar to saying that an atom “wants to have eight electrons in its valence shell”.

But if it is OK to say that heart’s purpose is to pump blood, then why is it not OK to say that the purpose of the heart being on the left is to remind us of lovingkindness, or that there is at least some purpose in that, even if we haven’t figured that out yet?

I guess my dream is that I could accept much of the religious ideas in the same way as I accept that “heart’s purpose is to pump blood”. While fully understanding that it is not really so, still being able to make sense of it and adopt it as an integral part, a guiding metaphor and a framework to approach life. There exists of course a very annoying opinion that as long as religion is taken only “as a metaphor”, it won’t work properly. Fortunately I do not have to be conclusive in my blogposts 😀

4 replies
  1. Veronika
    Veronika says:

    Keep on reading you with a great interest. Well, in a certain way I do believe that everything happens for a reason. That also might be due to the fact that inner me is still 13.

    People like the idea of life being a continuity of things: I got married with a good guy because my parents always told me not to have sex before marriage and they did so because my aunt got pregnant at age of 13 (fake story). Therefore I’m happily married just because my aunt didn’t know much about contraception. For a religious person that could be interpreted in a way that my aunt had to suffer in order for HER and ME to learn some lessons. Can that be true? In this fictive story I believe that it might be so that this facts have nothing to do with each other, but it can also be so that it was all meant by God.

    I believe in destiny. Certain things are just meant to happen for people to learn their lessons from them. However, I also believe in a free will. There are situations you’re put in and you have to solve them during your life-time. Like check-points. If you don’t solve one, you’ll return back to it again.

    Just recently I met one of my middle school friends. She seamed to be unhappy. And then she told me about the problems she face everyday I was shocked because I certainly see that 90% of them are only inside of her own head. And than she acts rationally from her way of thinking but this is how she will never solve them. Nothing’s gonna change because she is living inside her personal convictions and illusions. And I wasn’t shocked because of a pity or feeling that she is living in a wrong way. No. I believe it’s her destiny and her life might be meant to solve the problems that I could solve in a much shorter time (as believing in your-self, social inclusion etc.) But I was shocked, because now I see that someone else might see my troubles as meaningless.

  2. Dominic Reichl
    Dominic Reichl says:

    First, you seem to be quite keen on getting Judaism to “work” for you. What would you expect a religion working properly to look like? Personally, I reckon that the social, moral, and spiritual elements of any religion far outweigh its potential to satisfy some metaphysical need. In other words, if you gain meaning from belonging to a community, from living by wise maxims, and from having elevating experiences, how much meaning could there still be left to gain from metaphysics? Or do you believe that all those sources of meaning are barren, are barred to you, as long as they are not built on some strange monotheistic foundation?

    Second, what does “a reason” mean in Hebrew and what connotations does the word have in that language? After all, one could interpret “everything happens for a reason” as “nothing happens without a cause”, which would be plain old determinism. Then, for the more theologically inclined, one may even draw the Aristotelian primum movens card. It might just be a play on words, substituting moving cause for final cause, but I highly doubt that a firm belief in destiny is a matter of choice. Nonetheless, I do myself have the conviction that everything that happens to me happens “for the better”, although I would call that optimism rather than fatalism, despite Nietzsche’s having ironically labeled it “amor fati”.

    Third, I wonder what the heart story tells me about my left-handedness: is it an abomination? should it make me incapable of properly receiving kindness?

    Fourth, I laughed out loud when I read the Peterson sentence; thank you for that.

    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      One friend told me yesterday that instead of trying to “get something from” Judaism, I should think “what can I give to” Judaism, which is an interesting contraposition. I think that I struggling here precisely with your question “Is all meaning barren unless I literally believe in weird stories?”. That seems to be the attitude in this place. For example I was talking about marriage. I said that I want to internalize Jewish family values so as to maximize the probability of a happy marriage. The answer I got was: “No matter how much you internalize these values, if you don’t believe that they are dictated by the God Almighty, you will likely end up sooner or later cheating on your wife”.

      BTW, I just read your post on spirituality rationality and irrationality. I like your framework of non-overlapping language games. I think my problem in the yeshiva is that I try to push this idea, but I get huge resistance. Rabbis don’t seem to want to accept that science and spitituality operate in distinct language-games. “There was drought. Then they were kind to each other, and this caused it to rain” (because they pleased God). A statement like this is a no-brainer in this environment. Now, to be honest and fair to the people here, they know very little about science. Probably as little as I knew about spirituality by the time I completed my PhD in math. Most people here have not studied “secular subjects” like math, chemistry, biology or English literature – not at all. None. They studied Torah since they were 3 years old. To be more precise, since they were conceived.

      It’s not about determinism, at least not in the Western philosophy sense. Jews firmly believe in free will of humans. It is interesting, however. They believe don’t believe in free will when it comes to “shall I drink coffee or tea?”. But they believe in the freedom of choice when it comes to higher principles and values like “Should I commit to Kosher food for the rest of my life?”

      I don’t know actually what left-handedness “means” in Judaism. I know that it is accepted and is definitely not thought of as abomination. Right-handed men put Teffilin on the left hand and left-handed men put it on the right hand. There is a paradox too, because the explanation for putting it on the left hand is so that it would be closer to heart. But left-handed people have their heart still on the left, so who knows. Maybe I should I ask this.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    Since this moment is all there really and actually IS, there may not be much meaning in “plans”, nor perhaps not much importance whether or not a “plan” exists or not. Certainly I seem to find the question less and less vital, although it can be amusing to play with. And still I have had moments, usually after a meditative mood, when it truly feels, just feels, as if everything happens exactly as it “supposed to happen”. I think this may actually be a side product of totally accepting the fact that “at this moment there is nothing i can do about this moment since it already IS”.


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