Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

Archive for the category “Prostate Cancer”

ProPep Surgical – da Vinci Prostatectomy | da Vinci Robotic Surgery | Nerve Monitoring Prostate Surgery

I found this interesting. I wish I had known about this technique so I could have discussed it with my surgeon prior to my prostatectomy. Being informed allows one to  advocate for oneself.

ProPep Surgical – da Vinci Prostatectomy | da Vinci Robotic Surgery | Nerve Monitoring Prostate Surgery.

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Weathering the Storm…Nine Months Later but Who is Counting

Weathering the Storm...Nine Months Later but Who is Counting

Weathering the Storm…Nine Months Later but Who is Counting

At six-o’clock in the morning on Sunday I am sitting in my hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri listening to the thunder as the tail end of a violent Spring storm passes by. Looking at the weather radar I can see another small cell approaching from the southwest. Last night the weatherman reported that there was a 60% probability that one would be exposed to a violent storm, possibly a tornado during the afternoon hours when I will be in Denver. Lucky me.

All this got me to thinking that I was and always have been lucky. Most recently, when I was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in September of 2012. What could be lucky about hearing the words, “You have cancer,” you ask? At the time, I didn’t think it so lucky either but then, after all the testing, the poking and prodding, I learned that the tumors were likely (but not positively) encapsulated in my prostate and that surgery would be the most aggressive ‘cure.’ The decision to operate took place in October but, because of the swelling of the prostate due to the needle biopsy, surgery had to wait until late November. That thirty day run-up to surgery was a nervous time, a time in which I thought a lot about my own mortality.

As long time readers know, the surgery was successful, the tumors were, in fact, contained within the prostate; it became clear that life would go on. Of course, I was left with two significant side-effects of prostate surgery. I suffered significant incontinence requiring me to wear diapers for the next five months. As I write this today, I am confident that the incontinence will not be a problem much longer if at all.  This, of course, answered a significant question I had for many years, namely, “Just who would wear Depends for Men anyway?” The surgical procedure was said to be nerve sparing so that sexual functioning would not suffer. Oops, that side-effect remains intact. I think of this as a small price to pay for a long life expectancy; who knows, I’m told this is likely not permanent either.

Since the surgery, however, I have suffered two major setbacks. First, I had a significant urinary tract infection, one that was resistant to many antibiotics, requiring that a permanent line be attached to a vein in my arm for daily injections of some potent antibiotic. While this seemed to do the trick (the infection is gone) I was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure with a kidney function of under 20%. While the reason for this seems to baffle both my internist as well as a kidney specialist I am seeing, the last kidney function test showed a marked improvement in kidney function. The worst seems to be over. Lucky again.

Good, because on Wednesday I will arrive in Las Vegas to play a little poker. While I don’t think of poker as a game of chance, winning always involves a bit of luck as well as a great deal of skill. So, as I go to Las Vegas, I’ll wear the cloak of luck I seem to have been wearing for the past 70 years, one that has allowed me to weather most every storm I have encountered. 

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I started the “Thinking in Jewish” series of posts by numbering each post with a Roman numeral. This numbering system is antiquated and cumbersome and I am, quite frankly, tired of the whole mess. So from this day forward I will number the “Thinking in Jewish” posts using Arabic numbering system which means that the next post will be labeled 32.

There is a question I want to answer for the readers of this blog. It comes up from time to time in the comments which makes it a worthy topic to blog about. It centers on what on earth my atheism and the posts in the series “Thinking in Jewish” has to do with my prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Along the same lines I have seen a strange undertone that seems to be asking what is an atheist like myself doing commenting on Jewish thinking in the first place.  So here goes…my best effort at talking about these issues as I blog away.

Begin at the beginning. When I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, the words that may indeed harken the beginning of the end of life, the words “YOU HAVE CANCER” it has a sobering effect on the way one chooses to look at the world. In my professional life I was a Professor of Language and Literacy at a Midwestern state university. My professional interests gravitated toward the study of the teaching of writing so that middle school and secondary school teachers could better teach their students the skill of writing without effort. Blogging, then, seemed like the most natural thing I could do to both help me focus on the fact that I now have a disease that may contribute to my demise. Kubler-Ross was wrong in my case. I grieved over the possibility that my life was coming to an end but I quickly accepted that as a fact that may or may not be true. My job now was to come to grips with how I intended to live the remaining years (or months whatever the case may be) of my life.

As an atheist, I rejected the idea that there is a creator God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. My own observations of the world and my deepening understanding of Jewish religious texts, however, caused me not to reject my own Jewish roots. I am a Jew, I have a Jewish understanding of the world, of time and space, of ethics and morality. I simply don’t attribute any of this to a creator God. one that is angry, demanding and punishing. As a post-Shoah (or post Holocaust although Shoah is a better word choice) Jew, where 6 million of my nation perished at the hands of Germans in an unspeakably horrible genocide (perhaps religicide is a more apt descriptor) for no other reason than they were Jews in Europe, made the very concept of a benevolent and omniscient God improbable and the very idea than an omnipotent God would not put a stop to the horrors of the camps, gas-chambers and crematory ovens would make this God either a sadist or rather than omnipotent, simply impotent and unworthy of worship. The other possibility to consider is that there is no God to be omnipotent, omniscient or benevolent, a possibility I find more convincing than any that includes God or religion at the center of the a discourse.

While sick and waiting for testing to be completed to determine what course of treatment for my prostate cancer would be recommended, I decided that learning how to ‘think in Jewish’ would be a good way to think about the potential end of life. It was a clear choice. The Christian story makes absolutely no sense to me. The same can be said for the story of Islam although that one is easier to swallow perhaps because it was formed in the same region as the Jewish story while the Christian story, while originating in Palestine, is essentially a European take on the very idea of monotheism. That being said, I thought it best to stick with what I know and simply become better at understanding where and how the religion of my people developed. The story, especially when told in the light of the ultimate schism of Jewish and Christian thinking and the response of both to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, is fascinating. I do not intend to go into that schism here but the response of the triumphal Christians and the defeated Jews of the first three centuries CE paints a picture of quite different approaches to the self-same problem.

What I found as I studied and read more deeply was that the ethics of Judaism played a great role in the way I had been living my life for years. There was embedded in the literature constant reminders of obligations to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for those less fortunate than we might be and there is always someone less fortunate than yourself no matter what your current situation might be. I don’t recall who said this but it is appropriate here. It goes something like this, “I cried out because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Sure I had cancer, but I still had hope and that hope lay in the hands of skilled physicians, men of science, who would do everything possible to make the remainder of my life one filled with the absolute joy of living. In the end, the men of science told me that surgery would cure my cancer and while there are some unpleasant side effects of the surgery, my life will not be disrupted to any great extent. I am now writing as a cancer survivor, one experiencing the unpleasant side effects and it is truly a small price to pay for many more years of life.

That being said, I decided to continue this blog because my personal struggle with ethics and evil in this world has become an important part of my life. Sure, it didn’t begin when I was diagnosed with cancer but that diagnosis brought it to the forefront of my being-in-the-world. That is why I continue to blog about my encounter with life in general and sometimes about health related issues that seems to arise as a result of my experience with cancer.

So no more Roman numerals and I’ll continue to make my thinking visible to me (and to you) on this blog.

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be patient in administration of justice; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

The Jewish world was fundamentally altered during the late stages of the Second Temple period, the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the last phases of the Second Temple there were several competing Judaisms, including the Pharisees, the Essenes and any number of mystical, messianic cults that were an integral part of the Jewish World. The destruction of the Temple was, however, a death blow to the Temple sacrificial cult where the blood of animals afforded the giver of the sacrifice absolution from his or her sins. In the days following the destruction of the Temple, the various Judaisms began to form more permanent structural and theological attitudes. Christianity went in one direction while the birth of Rabbinic Judaism took a completely different turn. While both of these Judaisms used specific language to make their case, I wish to concentrate on the language of Rabbinic Judaism most clearly revealed in the Mishnah quoted above.

One of the problems the Rabbis had to deal with was the issue of continuity, how were they in a direct and unbroken lineage from Moses to the present day. Moreover, they had to wrestle with the problem of how their writings fit into the lineage of the revelation at Sinai. To help explain the latter problem, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds engaged in the fantasy of the two Torahs; the written one and the oral one. But what gave the oral Torah authority? The answer devised was simple; it too was revealed to Moses at Sinai. That brings us to the issue of proving lineage from Moses to the present day to which the Rabbis answered that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God himself (both oral and written) and passed on in a direct lineage to us making us the recipients of the revelation. Implied here is that so long as the Torah is passed down, studied and understood by following generations, the lineage remains intact. The language used is self-serving in the sense that it supports the contention of the Sages that they are the true and only recipients of the Torah because they are a part of that succession. The problem with self-serving language, however, is that it simply doesn’t stand up to that which is now understood about the historical development of the Jewish people. It fits into a neat package, almost a marketing package, that solipsistically turns in on itself to prove its very existence but this vision fails when subjected to a deeper understanding of the times.

The second half of the Mishnah raises other kinds of questions. Much of the Mishnah, the redaction of Jewish Laws attributed to Judah ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) deals with the underlying structure of solving legal problems that arise from time to time. It is much like a casebook in law. The first instruction, to be patient in the administration of justice implies that the “oral” Torah is a work in progress, not a fixed document revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed on as described in the first part of this Mishnah. The implied flexibility in the application of the law suggests that the law as “oral” Torah was not revealed at all but hammered out by human beings to meet the needs of the day.

The instruction to make a fence for the Torah is also related to the very idea that where a vague commandment is made in the written Torah, it is the job of the oral Torah to both describe how one complies with the commandment but also that this description must take on a more or less conservative modality in the sense that anything that appears to be like the commandment is also either forbidden or required in order to be sure that the commandment itself is fulfilled. The fence could not have been revealed at Sinai because only through the discourse of debate among learned Sages could the fence be built. Another reason to reject the very notion of the two Torah fantasy. The language reveals a deep discord between that which is and that which is to be accepted as a fundamental belief without questioning the validity of the claim.

The instruction to develop many students is a practical one. The more students one develops, the more likely it is that the message will be preserved. Interestingly, some modern day research suggests that these Sages, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and other documents, had only a handful of students, perhaps no more that 15 to 20 at any given time, perhaps even fewer. In this context the 12 disciples of Jesus actually makes some sense. The idea that one develop students is one that preserves the message while providing for the possibility of new interpretations as new problems are faced. This language is practical; it also implies that the “oral” Torah was not a revelation but, rather, a growing body of literature redacted to compliment the written Torah itself.

The language of the Sages, the Rabbis writing the core documents of Judaism outside of the Torah and the Tanakh, is contradictory. On one hand it suggests a direct revelation from Moses to the present day while on the other it seems to support the idea that the authors recognize their own role as interpreters, authors, and commentators making the written Torah come to life. I do not find this unusual. These kinds of contradictions are found in all religions because they otherwise their beliefs could not be explained. Stories are created to respond to that which we don’t know but I find in far more interesting to uncover the fundamental truths contained in the stories while not being concerned about who or what put them out for public consumption.

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution p. 7

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Is Bergson on to something here? What exactly does “duration means invention” mean? What does the creation of forms have to do with the perception of time? Finally, what can Bergson imply when he speaks of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new?” If one also understands Bergson’s earlier comment that “duration [of time] coincides with my impatience” and that the consideration of time is “no longer something thought, it is something lived, then we may be able to make some sense of this phenomenological approach to time in a rational sense.

The idea that the measure of time, the duration of any given event in linear time is directly related to the impatience of the observer is a profound insight. How many times have you been in a situation in which you kept looking at your watch, time seemingly creeping along at a snail’s pace while other times things seem to fly by so fast that time itself is no longer an issue and you find no need to take a peek at your watch. Engaged behavior occurs in the absolute now while disengaged behavior, while still taking place in the now, occurs in the relative now because the end is elusive. It is here where the invention of duration is activated. When fully engaged, when concentration is at its peak, actions are deeply embedded in the now; time seems to stop and duration is not an issue. There is a Talmudic story about several sages at B’nai B’rak who spent all night discussing the Exodus from Egypt until one of their students interrupted reminding them that it was time for Morning Prayers. Here the passage of time made no difference and a reminder of an obligation had to be issued to close the productive discussion. Those times when time stands still, however, when things move so slowly that the clock never seems to advance, that is a wholly different story. Here one’s impatience dictates the speed of advancement of the clock, the duration of the activity, the scope of the project. In the former, time is a lived-experience while in the latter it is something thought and not lived.

When Bergson references the idea of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new” he is, I think, arguing that the absolute duration of time is not only infinitely brief but that it is something never to be repeated in the experience of the individual. Furthermore, every unique individual experiences the same relative duration of time in his or her own unique manner. In short, each moment is unique for each being to be experienced in one’s own way as something new. This view of time is not unlike the post-modern view that the only experience that qualifies as existence is this very moment, the moment which is always already gone, never to be recovered except as an incomplete trace. And so we come to the idea of the “creation of forms.”

It is possible to understand Bergson’s notion of the “creation of forms” as being similar to the idea of laying down of traces serving as memory engrams, recalled nostalgically to create a past and even to project a future (although the idea of projecting goals is similar to the trace of memory it is likely to be mechanically different). As we invent duration, live our experiences, our absolutely new and unique experiences, we are creating traces or forms that allow us to understand time as linear and history as ‘real’ because we can recall a part of what occurred. Our recall, however, isn’t as focused as the experience itself, rather it is idealized to conform to the underlying story predicted by the prior laying down of traces, reminders of our lived-experience.

While Bergson seems to apply a teleological foundation to his ideas about time, the ideas are more attuned to a randomly constructed universe with no particular purpose in mind. These ideas work just as well, in fact even better, when teleology is removed from the equation. What is important to note, however, is that Bergson’s ideas are flexible enough to provide a base for understanding a non-teleological ethics based on responsibility for the other and embracing the absolute uniqueness of the other.

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

There is a Zen saying that goes like this: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. The foundation of this saying is to remind us that if someone seems to have all the answers to all the questions, they don’t have any answers at all. I was reminded of that saying last Monday night when I sat down for a traditional Passover Seder and the leader of the Seder presumed to know everything. It was rather tedious having to listen to his zealotry as he fumbled through a Haggadah different from the rest of us trying to find a place we could all agree on. It was tedious to listen to the polemical insistance that the story being repeated was an actual experience witnessed by millions of Jews in Egypt and at Sinai around 3200 years ago.

I must admit being a bit impatient with the leader, who was trying to equate my relationship with a Chabad Rabbi and his relationship with the Chabad. When I tried to explain to him that my interest was more or less academic and not religious or spiritual he was arrogant enough to tell me I was wrong and that no one goes to the Chabad unless they are interested in spiritual development. When he presumed to know my personal motivation I demonstrated my own impatience by telling him that the stories that survived to form Rabbinic Judaism are simply made-up, redacted and crafted by the redactor to create a theosophy matching the politics of the exile after the rise of Christianity and the defeat of Bar Kochba; that it is impossible to ignore the political reality and still understand the surviving mythology.

At that point I was told that he and I are exactly the same. We come from the same religious experience. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. True, we are about the same age, we both have prostate cancer although mine is currently in full remission while his is, unfortunately, not, we both attend the Chabad (but not for the same reasons) but there the similarities end. I am an atheist, a Jewish atheist but an atheist nevertheless while he is conveniently religious (only when it suits him). I am curious about the form of argumentation used by the post-exilic sages because it is a fascinating academic exercise to understand the thought process as the core documents of Jewish thought were created but I do not accept these documents as anything other than an effort to explain that which is difficult to explain. He takes the documents at their face value asking no critical questions as to origin, political considerations or relationships between Jews and Gentiles as these documents were being created. I could go on about differences but I think I have made my point.

I generally find those people who presume to speak for others to be both tedious and arrogant. Perhaps the two cannot be separated in any meaningful way. In this particular case, I was also angered by the presumption that this man decided what my personal motives might be and how utterly wrong he was. His error was compounded by his failure to listen to any explanation of my motives that I offered. I soon became tired of the whole affair and began to respond to him with the following, “I can’t believe you swallow this made up BS hook, line and sinker!” For that I probably should ask for forgiveness but I probably won’t because I only see him on rare occasions any longer.

What I find is that I have far more questions than I have answers. I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself when I write. Sure I try to write persuasively but I don’t expect anyone to simply accept my arguments at face value. I write to construct tentative answers to difficult questions offering up my musings for comments and critique. After all, isn’t that how we learn to understand each other. Only when there is a single-minded zeal does the process of understanding get interrupted falling into ruins. So keep the conversations lively and if you meet the Buddha on the road…Kill him!

 

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

Infusions, Doctors and Life Generally

As I was sitting in the very comfortable reclining chair getting hooked up for my sixth infusion of antibiotics to deal with the  resistant echoli strain that has seen fit to invade my body, I was struck by the idea that since my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and recovery period, I have slowed down. Now slowing down is a good thing. It began when I took off my watch forcing me to be less concerned with time in general. While the act of refusal to recognize time as a constraint was difficult at first, it has become a blessing. To not feel the urgency of time makes the time I have more precious; something akin to a gift from myself to myself. At the same time, I have not lost my appetite for punctuality. This may seem a contradiction but I think it is not. When everything is run by the clock then punctuality is an obsession but when I take the time to just take in what is there, punctuality becomes an ethical act; an act of respect for the other whether the other is driven by the clock or not.

So sitting in that chair, talking to Cynthia, the nurse administering the antibiotic, I noticed all of the surroundings, the pictures on the wall, the clock with the broken second hand, the smell and taste of the antibiotic as it drips into my veins. In the moment of that half hour of dripping solutions I was at one with the universe.

Since taking off the watch six or so months ago the world seems to spin at a slower pace. Of course it isn’t the case but the fact that I take the time to notice things I didn’t have the time to notice before is a bonus that was totally unexpected. I hear the voices of doctors as they try to figure out what is going on with me and find the urgency of one doc countered by the patience of another as they look at the results of the data. One doc looks at a number and nearly panics while the other looking at the same numbers takes the approach of waiting to see how the whole picture develops before striking out with a treatment plan. I think that one should never treat a number, rather one should look at the whole picture and treat the cause of the abnormal data that emerges over time. Jumping in without all the facts is as dangerous as denial of the emerging data. While one cannot be absolutely certain when incomplete data is present, one cannot allow oneself to be driven by the presence of a single abnormal number either. That too is an insight I learned after taking off my watch and allowed myself the luxury of observation.

As an aside, I found it interesting that even with the PICC line inserted I had to be stuck to draw blood in my internist’s office. What a waste of a good PICC line. When in the infusion center blood was also drawn and the same blood numbers will be analyzed. Why twice? Could it be profits are involved?

 

Yes, A Week for Medical Concerns: Dealing with the Aftermath of Cancer and More

Yes, A Week for Medical Concerns: Dealing with the Aftermath of Cancer and More

Yes, A Week for Medical Concerns: Dealing with the Aftermath of Cancer and More

In the next ten days, starting today when I visit my internist and oncologist back to back, I begin a ten-day period of rather intense medical review. While I expect to find things right on schedule, one never knows. My internist drew blood last week in preparation for this morning’s visit. Leaving his office, right around the corner from Starbucks, I went to read and enjoy a cup of coffee. While sitting in Starbucks, I began to notice some significant back pain along with gripping groin pain. It took a few moments, but it soon became clear that I was passing a kidney stone. As if I didn’t have enough urological problems, I then noticed that I was running a fever of around 101 degrees. Yikes, now I am getting sick as well. Just what I needed. Since the symptoms weren’t getting any better, last Friday I went to my internist complaining of cloudy urine and this on again off again fever. He prescribed an antibiotic, one I had never taken before and said I should keep the Monday appointment as a follow-up as well as one in which we would address any number of issues. By Saturday, I couldn’t stay away from the bathroom and I had developed a bright red, blotchy rash all over my body. I stopped taking the antibiotic on Sunday. It is now Monday morning and I still have bowel trouble but at least it is not constant and urgent.

Soon after I post this I will be on my way to Starbucks once again in preparation for my trip to the internist’s office. As soon as I finish with him I must go to the oncologist for an infusion of iron as my system simply refuses to ingest iron from any source whatsoever. This means a bag of the dirtiest looking rust water (I know it is not but that is exactly what it looks like) will be introduced into my veins and allowed to course through my system adding iron to my blood stream.

Finally, I get to see the urologist who replaces the urologist who treated me for the past fifteen years. He took a new position and so I am left to see if I like his understudy or not. I am actually feeling a bit uncomfortable about this change but my old urologist swears that this new doc is even more affable than he is and that he would send his own brother to him which, I suppose, is a strong recommendation. Time will tell whether I like this new guy and whether he will become my urologist of choice or will I have to shop for someone else? Tick tock tick tock!

Other than that, not much is new on my medical front. The kidney stone pain has subsided which may only mean that the stone is not moving about or it could be that the stone has passed. My fever is gone but there again, on only two days of antibiotic it may return. I think I’ll suggest to my internest that he stick with antibiotics that we know I have absolutely no allergic response to and take it from there. I nervously await the PSA results of my blood test, he also tested for testosterone levels but I don’t know why. I think I’ll ask. May post later with some news about the test results. If not, I’ll surely post tomorrow.

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, they do not look for , nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and binding’ binds and holds them together.
— Plato, Phaedo 99

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Plato’s description of the teleological, the account holding that final causes exist in nature, providing an underlying systemic design to the very forces that mysteriously point to the divine, is a classical riddle leading human beings to project the eschatological end times; the design of a divine being whose enterprise of death, judgment, heaven and hell ends with apocalyptic transitions from one life to another. There is a teleological presumption that this design requires a creator, or at the very least a first cause creator, one with a thoughtful mind that plans and executes that plan over which human beings have little or no control. On this view, humans are prisoners of this design, powerless to affect the outcome of the planed end of times.

It seems that eschatological programs dominate major religions of the world. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian eschatology dominate their respective belief systems. Most of the modern eschatological thinking is dominated by a violent disruption, even the destruction, of the world. Jewish and Christian eschatological understanding sees the end times as the perfection of God’s creation of the world; God created the world for a purpose and is constantly moving toward the final goal of this creation. For Jews, the end times will be noted when the messiah presents himself to the world. For the Christians the end times come when the messiah returns to the world. In either case, the end times, the perfection of creation means the end of the world as we know it; even, perhaps the destruction of the world and the end of everything.

Teleological eschatology presents a mix of optimistic joy and pessimistic terror, with pessimism holding most of the good cards. Even true believers will suffer in the end of times; the inevitability of which is programmed into the plan of which only God is certain. So we constantly face predictions of the end of the world, the most recent of which was the Mayan Apocalypse but this prediction is not isolated in the minds of those who believe in the very idea of a linear path from creation to destruction, a plan conceived by some creator God (or gods) or another to explain that which is difficult to explain.

There is, however, a significant problem with the teleological insistence on God having a plan for everything. It simply doesn’t mesh with science. Let me explore some teleological arguments juxtaposed against a single scientific program, evolution. While I do not claim this analysis as a comprehensive one, I do claim it to be a good faith, albeit brief, summary of some key ideas. One claim of those who embrace religious eschatology is that their system explains reality. Evolution, on the other hand, only claims to be an explanation of the development of life on earth without looking at or making claims about origins. Evolution or natural selection is a random process over which no design appears to dominate. Natural selection eschews the very notion of supernatural intervention into the process of biological changes while their religious counterparts claim supernatural intervention through a creation ex nihilo that is static and unchanging. Teleological eschatology claims a purpose for creation where evolution understands the world in terms of its very randomness, a randomness that creates biological diversity in constant flux; changes that are not instantaneous, rather that occur over long periods of time, far longer than the span of a human lifetime. Finally, teleological eschatology claims that the only way to avoid the ultimate catastrophic end of times is to do God’s will as they describe the will of God. Natural selection makes no such claim; it claims that biological changes are responses to environmental conditions that, in turn, provide a context to insure survival. These conditions and contexts are not part of some grand scheme but, rather, are random natural events occurring over time.

While teleological eschatology appears rational to many, it has a distinct flaw that cannot be overcome. It is dependent on its own rationale, its tautological dependence on its own sacred texts that somehow, when taken together, make up (yes, the pun is intended) a belief system that cannot be questioned. The belief system feeds upon itself, taking ancient proof texts to prove that the hand of God permeates everything. When questioned, the system falls apart. Proving the existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is fully dependent on one’s prior belief in that God without which all proofs fail. If belief is required for proof then one has a system that, on its face, is tautological in the sense that it uses a set of self-reinforcing statements or claims that are not subject to refutation; in short, using different words to say the same thing.

In the end, teleological systems fail, not because they are not rational for their internal rationality is often quite exquisite, rather they fail because they feed only upon themselves without opening the door to distinctly rational, observable, and replicable understandings.

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion, in the following sense: “true for me but not for you” and “true in my culture but not in yours” are weird, pointless locutions. So is “true then, but not now.” [William] James would, indeed, have done better to say that phrases like “the good in the way of belief” and “what is better for us to believe” are interchangeable with “justified” rather than “true.”
Richard Rorty

Truth cannot simply be rational acceptability for one fundamental reason: truth is supposed to be a property of a statement that cannot be lost, whereas justification can be lost. The statement “The earth is flat” was, very likely, rationally acceptable 3000 years ago; but it is not rationally acceptable today. Yet it would be wrong to say that “the earth is flat” was true 3000 years ago; for that would mean that the earth has changed its shape.
Hillary Putnam

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII

A question I am struggling with at the moment is simply this: is it possible for the same thing to be ‘true’ in one circumstance and ‘false’ in another? The answer to this question depends on a rational definition of ‘truth’ and the implications that definition has on a warranted claim based on a consensus of normative ‘facts’ available through rational experience. To simply make the assertion that something is true as an a priori ‘fact’ begs the question of rational acceptability or, as John Dewey would propose, warranted assertability.

For Dewey, inquiry must be open, subject to self-correction over time only if ideas are submitted for testing by a community of inquirers. Such inquiry clarifies, justifies and refines and/or refutes claims made as truth when the evidence suggests a rational shift in rational justification of ideas.  Richard Rorty suggests that such communities of inquiry simply set aside claims that no longer meet the standards of open inquiry rather than reject said claims completely. An example of this might be the maintenance of Newtonian physics as it applies to gross objects while, at the same time, accepting the relativity of Einstein incorporating the notion of space-time as a dimension as it explains the gravitational warping of space, something Newton could not conceive of in the 17th century.

If I were pressed to choose one single idea that helps me understand what counts as ‘true’ or ‘justified’ it would be the foundational idea that inquiry can have no pre-conceived ‘Truths” guiding all inquiry. Inquiry must be unfettered, have no boundaries, be completely open to questions, most of which will land on the scrap heap of ideas. Open inquiry, more often than not, builds on existing knowledge, on what Rorty calls normative discourse or what Thomas Kuhn calls paradigmatic thinking. Paradigms or normative discourse are suggestive of theoretical concepts accepted across nearly the entirety of a discourse community; conventional thinking is a nice way to think about this. Kuhn points to the time before the ‘discovery’ of chemical elements. Just 300 years ago there were but four recognized elements among the scientific community, earth, wind, fire and water. All else was something called phlogiston. Because of the work of several scientists in the mid to late seventeen hundreds, and an experiment using mercuric oxide heated using a flame thereby breaking atomic bonds separating the metal from the oxygen (an experiment every high school chemistry student does today) the discovery of oxygen set aside the prior normative theory and phlogiston is no longer on the minds of any reputable scientist. A new discourse emerged as the old paradigm lost its grip and a new one replaced it. Because phlogiston was the stuff that wasn’t earth, wind, fire or water did not make it true. To the contrary it was ‘justified’ by the prevailing thought of its day and revered among alchemists. The fact that oxygen was not recognized as an element does not mean that oxygen did not exist until it was discovered; to the contrary, it was there just waiting for someone to observe an unexplainable anomaly and puzzle out the consequences of that anomaly.

Paradigmatic thinking is normative within any given discourse community; paradigms guide inquiry, suggest reasoned questions that should be asked and, because of that, exert a strong hold on that which is thought to be normative. It is only when unexpected results from experiments show up that the community, if it is a true discourse community, engages in what Rorty calls abnormal discourse, discourse that is other than normative. New questions get thrown out, new experiments or observations find their way into the peer reviewed professional discourse and are picked apart by those committed to preserving the paradigm. Good ideas, ideas that pass through the filter of peers and critique, tend to survive while others are pushed aside because they do not stand up to the scrutiny of review. Sooner or later, those good ideas change the face of the inquiry community and the discourse it uses to guide future inquiry. This only happens in open inquiry communities. In closed inquiry communities, those who have determined that there are certain untouchable, sacrosanct starting points, the inquiry can never proceed beyond the point of the starting point and this is the problem I spoke about at the beginning of this post.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the community of rational thinkers that are Orthodox Jews are brilliant, thoughtful, focused and sincere. Their starting point, however, is an archaic a priori position that, as I understand it, requires the acceptance of certain points as outside the bounds of challenge. 1) the Torah is perfect and must be taken literally word for word, 2) the Torah (written and oral) were revealed to Moses, our teacher, at Sinai and passed down to Joshua, then to the Elders, to the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly (rabbis) who conveyed it to the people, and 3) that all Jewish souls, from the beginning of time to the end of time, those already dead, those living and those yet to be born, were present at Sinai when the Torah was revealed. To question any of these principles and the consequences of questioning is prohibited from the discourse. Rabbinical literature (the oral Torah and all of its components) create a hypothetical world in which the purpose of the contained dialectic is to show that 1) God exists, and 2) God’s law is unified and eternal. To question these a priori ideas is to engage in something akin to heresy and is prohibited. In brief, the discourse community comprised of Torah scholars past and present, from Sages to rabbis of our present times is not an open discourse community and are, therefore, unable to accommodate science to their particular brand of theology.

Yet, I find the rational process intriguing. Beginning with a proposition, the rabbis engage in an exegesis that, in the end, leaves no stone unturned. From the proposition the Sages turn to competing voices that disagree as to the impact of the proposition. When that dispute is made clear, the Sages turn to similar cases to make their point that the law is always unified. Finally, they return to the original case resolving the conflict where possible but sometimes leaving the resolution open to further review. This is an intriguing way of thinking, one I have yet to fully appreciate but one I am working hard to learn.

In the final analysis, I cannot reconcile the stubborn insistence on the a priori ideas that guide the entire process; the closed system of inquiry finding proof texts from within to justify one’s conclusions. This practice, I think, leads to more and more difficult justifications when often the simplest answer (vis. Occam’s Razor) is the best one to follow. The more convoluted the argument is the less convincing it becomes; yet there is some value in learning the rhetorical form and the conventions that make understanding the method productive in other areas of textual interpretation.

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