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Ibn Ezra on Intelligent Design and the First Commandment

posted by David Klinghoffer

For those who think that finding evidence of design in nature is a Christian preoccupation, not a Jewish one, the hits just keep coming. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is one of a handful of the most important classical commentators on the Torah. Explaining the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:1), Ibn Ezra asks why God commands our belief using this formulation with its two clauses. The sage argues that religious believers whose faith is gained through tradition alone will be in good shape 

until a heretic begins to argue with them that there is no God, [then] they put their hands over their mouths, because they don’t know what to respond. On the other hand, if a person applies himself to the study of the sciences, which are like steps to help a person reach his desired destination, he will be able to discern the handiwork of God in metals, plants, living creatures, and in the human body itself… From God’s ways [in nature] the discerning person comes to know God. That is why Scripture writes, “I am the Lord your God” [-- the God Whom you discern in nature]. But this can only be appreciated by someone who is extremely wise… As for the miracles done in Egypt… everyone saw this, both the wise and the unwise, both adults and children… Therefore, Scripture first writes, “I am the Lord,” for the discerning individual. It then writes, “Who took you out,” so that even the non-discerning individual may understand.

There — once again — you have it. For the simple, simple faith. For the wise, intelligent design. My translation here is from the Introduction to Rabbi Korobkin’s outstanding new translation of the Kuzari, which we discussed in an earlier entry.


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posted August 19, 2009 at 9:32 pm


“he will be able to discern the handiwork of God in metals, plants, living creatures, and in the human body itself… ”
But he won’t be able to discern this once he focuses his attention on a small handful* of features in nature that appear on the surface like sloppy (or cruel) handiwork.
“For those who think that finding evidence of design in nature is a Christian preoccupation, not a Jewish one”
Well, very few people of either religion are truly preoccupied with it. “Very interested,” but not “preoccupied.” That word has a negative connotation.
* (Please, no one should nitpick over the words “small handful.”)



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Turmarion

posted August 19, 2009 at 9:41 pm


Once more, with feeling:
David, in his post on Francis Collins: “On the other hand, that life has an evolutionary history including billions of years of change — that is unassailable as science and unobjectionable to me as a Jew.” Please explain to me how this is one whit different from theistic evolution. David, you said on that same post that you’d like to see someone debate Collins or ask him some pointed questions; yet you resolutely avoid all such questions and attempts at debate here. This one, which seems to me a statement of what almost anyone would refer to as theistic evolution, is especially egregious.
Finally, you still have never given a real response to what we’ve been asking you about Maimonides (at your request, I recapped and expanded on this a few threads ago, remember?). We’re still waiting. Also, I’m still waiting to hear you speak to the issues of randomness [I'll modify this since you suggested the West articles, but you haven't answered my critique of them yet] and alien intelligence vis-à-vis the “image of god”.
I know this is getting repetitive, but I think anyone reading this will agree that I’m not using nasty language and that I’m being perfectly polite. Don’t you think the civil thing is at least to acknowledge the questions, even if for some reason you don’t want to answer them? And if you don’t want to answer them, you might at least give us an idea why not.



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Turmarion

posted August 19, 2009 at 10:04 pm


Well, at I’ll give you credit for posting a quote that is an entire paragraph long and which is actually sourced!
On the other hand, if a person applies himself to the study of the sciences….
Which ID resolutely refuses to do: no research, no papers, no confirmed predictions, nada.
he will be able to discern the handiwork of God in metals, plants, living creatures, and in the human body itself…
All together now, boys and girls: THEISTIC EVOLUTION BELIEVES THIS, TOO!!!!!!! Don’t we feel better now? As usual, David, you’re implying that theistic evolutionists do not in fact believe that God’s handiwork can be seen in nature, but that only IDers can do so. You then provide a quote that clearly could apply as easily (if not more so) to theistic evolution and deliberately give it a misleading interpretation. Anyone can look at the quote and see what I mean.
For the wise, intelligent design.
Maimonides was very wise, and said that if reason or what it could know (e.g. science) conflicted with the literal meaning of the Torah, the interpretation of the Torah must change. Some other very wise men who had no problem with evolution in modern times include Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Aryeh Kaplan, Israel Lipschitz, Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (the MaHaRSHaM), and Zvi Hirsch Chajes. I guess they don’t count, though, huh?



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Turmarion

posted August 19, 2009 at 10:07 pm


Speaking of Maimonides, any intention of ever discussing the issues I raised about your interpretation and quoting of him? Any interest in giving us your opinions regarding the eminent Orthodox rabbis mentioned above who disagree with you on evolution? Any intention of ever answering the questions I keep posting again and again? Just wondering.



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mergatroid

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:05 am


“Which ID resolutely refuses to do: no research, no papers, no confirmed predictions, nada.”
Funny, turmarion, but the following came out today:
http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/new-peer-reviewed-pro-id-article-in-mainstream-matheng-literature/
“Finally, you still have never given a real response to … We’re still waiting. Also, I’m still waiting to hear you speak …”
David, you’re obligated to answer Turmarion because, well, because he’s Turmarion!!
“Maimonides was very wise, and said that if reason or what it could know (e.g. science) ”
Close, he would’ve said: “e.g. GOOD science.”



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Your Name

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:06 am


“Which ID resolutely refuses to do: no research, no papers, no confirmed predictions, nada.”
Funny, turmarion, but the following came out today:
http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/new-peer-reviewed-pro-id-article-in-mainstream-matheng-literature/
“Finally, you still have never given a real response to … We’re still waiting. Also, I’m still waiting to hear you speak …”
David, you’re obligated to answer Turmarion because, well, because he’s Turmarion!!
“Maimonides was very wise, and said that if reason or what it could know (e.g. science) ”
Close, he would’ve said: “e.g. GOOD science.”



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mergatroid

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:09 am


Darn computer is acting up — making me think a post didn’t go through when it did. Sorry for the duplicate. The first comment on top is mine, too.



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Mergatroid

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:13 am


Turmarion, has it occurred to you that maybe David is fine with theistic evolution on a theoretical basis, but finds faults with it on a scientific basis? I think this solution obviates your (now repetitive) question to him.
You’re welcome, David, for saving you time from answering him (assuming I’m representing your views accurately.)



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David Klinghoffer

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:45 am


Thanks, Mergatroid. Yes, that’s right. Theistic evolution is compelled either to violate the dictates of Darwinism to which it swears loyalty or those of theism, to which it also claims to be loyal.



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Turmarion

posted August 20, 2009 at 8:30 am


mergatroid: As to the article, well good for them. As I’ve said, if over time enough research and articles accumulate and the evidence is good enough, it will win the day and ID will be accepted. If not, it will fail. Rather–Darwinian–if you will.
I would point out a few facts, though:
1. It’s one paper after all these years–pretty small beer compared to most other fields of scientific endeavor. Time will tell, but that’s slim pickings so far.
2. The IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a legitimate group, but one that does not deal with biology or mathematics (except as the latter touches on electrical engineering). Thus, there’s always the question of relevancy.
3. I might point out that there is an engineer by the name of Donald Scott who has made some conroversial statements about cosmology and astronomy, including, e.g., that the sun derives its energy not from nuclear fusion, but from electrical discharge. He makes several other such statements, explaining almost all astronomical pheneomena by electromagnetic and plasma principles, against the current model. His ideas have been almost universally rejected by the physics and astronomical communities (and since he makes no design claims at all, there is not even the hint of opposition for religious reasons here). Guess what? He is published in the journal of the IEEE! Thus, while I’m willing to reserve judgment on the paper you reference until more time passes and reactions come in, and until I have a look at it in detail myself, I’d say that given the history of the venue, I’m underwhelmed so far.
4. David, you’re obligated to answer Turmarion because, well, because he’s Turmarion!! No one’s obligated to answer me or anyone else for any reason. However, if David is going to say that he welcomes debate, discussion, and dialogue, as he explicitly has more than once, then he has a moral obligation to discuss issues raised by posters. Dodging questions without even giving reasons for doing so is quite frankly moral cowardice. If he’s not willing to do that, or willing only to chime in to thank those who agree with him, then why does he bother having a blog at all? Steve Waldman, Rod Dreher, and Brad Hirschfield, to name a few, also blog here and are always thoughtful and willing to interact with those with whom they disagree. None of them shy from tough questions or sincere thought about issues that readers bring up. Anyone who takes the time to compare those blogs to this one will see what I mean.
Having said that, David is perfectly free to do as he wishes, just as I am perfectly free to keep posting the questions. Those who read are also free to draw their own conclusions about who is being intellectually honest and who is credible.
5. Close, [Maimonides] would’ve said: “e.g. GOOD science.” If you have training in biology, then you know that evolution is good science. If not, then you know not whereof you speak. I also have pointed out time and again that David selctively quoted Maimonides to imply that he says the opposite of what he actually says. David claimed that Rambam rejected an eternal cosmos, period, whereas if you actually read the whole chapter, he says that it is only Aristotle’s version that is incompatible with Judaism, not Plato’s concept of an eternal cosmos. He even says that if it could be proved that Plato was right, it would be necessary to accept it, despitemy credibility.
Besides, short of bringing Maimonides back from the dead and giving him time to get up to speed on modern science, we don’t know what he’d think about evolution, do we?
6. mergatroid: Turmarion, has it occurred to you that maybe David is fine with theistic evolution on a theoretical basis, but finds faults with it on a scientific basis?
David: Theistic evolution is compelled either to violate the dictates of Darwinism to which it swears loyalty or those of theism, to which it also claims to be loyal.
Using sneaky weasel words again! I am not “loyal” to the concept that a the sum of the measures of the angles of a triangle equals one hundred eighty degrees, or to the concept that the acceleraton due to gravity on Earth is 9.8 meters per second squared. These are demonstrable facts. Ditto many other areas (e.g. quantum physics and relativity) in which there are still areas which are not understood. Imperfect understanding and error are not the same. To the extent that we understand, evolution is in this same category. Accepting it is not an act of faith or belief (as the word “loyalty” implies), but merely a recogniton of the way the world is, as when I see that the angles of a triangle are 180 degrees, not 27 or 586.
Anyway, David, I sent you a long essay explaining why theistic evolution is not incompatible with belief in God’s action in the world. You referred me to three articles by John West at the DI website. I read them all and sent you a critique, including West’s own admission that my view, the same as that explained by Stephen Barr in the First Things article,
is logically possible–in short his admission that he can’t refute it. The only basis he gave for rejecting it is his interpretatioin of the Bible!. Now first, this gives the lie to the ID claim that it’s about the science, not religion; and second, he’s assuming that his is the normative interpretaton of Scripture (which I think it is not, and can be shown not to be). You never responded to this at all. Why not?
7. mergatroid: You’re welcome, David, for saving you time from answering him
From an article by David, which he linked to earlier: “Normally, I think it’s best for friends of ID to avoid a defensive posture and generally let critics say what they want without our always feeling obliged to respond.” You can call this attitude whatever you want, but it ain’t scientific and it has nothing to do with dialogue. I’ll give him credit for this–he certainly follows this credo! Once again, David doesn’t have to answer anyone anything, but it just hurts his credibility, and demonstrates the credulousness of anyone who thinks that keeping mum and not responding to critics is a strength (hint–it’s not).



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Turmarion

posted August 20, 2009 at 8:32 am


Several links in my last post, which is pending. If you could get it up here, please do so.



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Anderson

posted August 20, 2009 at 9:20 am


It seems intellectually dishonest to me to say that someone who lived several hundred years before the concepts of evolution and intelligent design were proposed and who had no access to evidence for or against either would favor one over the other. And even if you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ibn Ezra would have favored intelligent design over evolution, I’m not sure why his opinion on the subject—given that he doesn’t have access to any of the research on which these concepts are based—is at all relevant.



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LazerA

posted August 20, 2009 at 10:36 am


David,
I would appreciate the exact source for this quote (unfortunately, I don’t own a copy of Rabbi Korobkin’s translation of the Kuzari).
Incidentally, the idea that belief based upon tradition (which can be a very strong philosophical position – as per the classic argument of the Kuzari) is stronger or better when combined with belief based upon reason – especially the argument from design – are commonplace in Jewish writings.
While Judaism does not rely on the “Argument from Design”, traditional Jewish sources tend to strongly endorse it either as a method for increasing our perception of God’s presence in the world or, as in the ibn Ezra you have quoted, as providing additional ammunition against the challenges against belief.



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LazerA

posted August 20, 2009 at 10:59 am


Oh, sorry, hadn’t seen your next post where you gave the source.
Thanks!



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John Farrell

posted August 20, 2009 at 12:16 pm


Turmarion, I for one appreciate your points. But I have not the slightest expectation that Mr. Klinghoffer will reply to you in any substantive way.
I highly doubt you will ever see him cite a paper in Nature, Science, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine or any other reputable scientific publication to back up his claims. I’m sure the DI has provided him with all the easy talking points as to why that’s just not his responsibility….
Depressing.



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Turmarion

posted August 20, 2009 at 1:21 pm


Apparently in the heat of typing I made a typo. The last sentence of the first paragraph after point 5 above should read: “He even says that if it could be proved that Plato was right, it would be necessary to accept it, despite what the literal reading of the Torah says.
Thanks, John. I don’t have any expectations of a substantive response, either, nor of an actual citation of evidence. Like Gabriel Hanna and Glen Davidson, all I can hope is to be a little bit of a voice of reason here and to perhaps point out the flaws in David’s arguments to those willing to hear them.



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Your Name

posted August 21, 2009 at 12:29 am


@Anderson “It seems intellectually dishonest to me to say that someone who lived several hundred years before the concepts of evolution and intelligent design were proposed and who had no access to evidence for or against either would favor one over the other.”
Umm, the /concept/ of intelligent design, just not that exact /expression/, is thousands of years old.
And don’t forget about Lucretius.



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