I'm spending today cleaning up and RNAse purifying a PCR, so it's a lot of waiting and not a lot else to do until I get back on the optical trap. In the meantime, thoughts turn to Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish new year on the lunar calendar, which starts this evening. The high holidays tend to make me lonely, and a bit homesick. I don't know a lot of Jews in the bay area, my immediate family all lives in Chicago, and my extended family lives on the east coast, so I usually spend my high holiday time in a contemplative mode (read: alone.) I go to the campus Hillel, I follow along with the prayers, and I think about my relationship to the ineffable, and how that relationship can help me be a better person.
I say "the ineffable" because my relationship to God qua God, which is to say, God as a disembodied entity, has changed radically over the last twenty years or so. In my youth (said the sage, as he shook his gray locks) I was a devout adherent to the Reform Jewish movement. I went to Jewish summer camp, I had my Bar Mitzvah, and I had a strong and personal relationship with God. When I prayed, it was fervently, and with intention.
But, as much as it sounds like a cliche, 10 years in the relentless, ruthless pursuit of empiricism at all costs has had its toll on me. I now think of myself as somewhere between deism and agnosticism. The more I learn about the natural world, and the more time I spend with my brain in a mode of empirical observation, the less room there seems to be for a God in the universe. At the same time, it's obvious that "God", as an idea, serves a purpose to people, giving them hope and meaning, so there's an incentive to believe in such a thing, an incentive that has nothing to do with what can be deduced about the world. Occam's razor thus cuts God to pieces*.
So, then why not atheism? Why settle for agnosticism? A few reasons. First: Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem puts limits on what we can deduce from purely mechanistic logic. No matter how ruthless our logic is, there are still statements that can be notionally outside of our ability to prove them. It's obvious that the Occam's-razor-appoach to God (i.e., why believe in God if we don't need one?) is not a proof, and one can readily construct ideas about God (such as deism) that are beyond our capacity to prove or disprove, at least within a logical framework. Does this mean that I believe in God? No. But it means that I accept that I cannot prove that there is none. And given the very idea of God as an interloper and creator of human affairs, it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a being might hide himself behind layers of obscurity.
On the other hand, logic itself is a system of belief, and it also has its dogmas, such as induction. We base most of our "logical" conclusions on induction, but induction is really only a rule of thumb, and one that we can't even prove: try proving the validity of inductive reasoning without using induction. (Go ahead, I'll wait here.) So, our instinct that logic is the only reasonable mode of interpretation of the universe is itself suspect. It tends to produce useful results, so I'm willing to stick with it for most things. But, once again, I'm not willing to rule out the possibility that there are other modes of understanding our experience and our universe that might not also be valid. As an example, we have an entire emotional life that is not governed by logic. We believe things that we have no reason to believe, we frequently know with great certainty things that are provably false, and we make errors in judgment all the time because of our feelings. We can, at a fundamental level, understand this by logic, by understanding the evolutionary processes that got us to this point, and by understanding the neurological processes that underlie these feelings. But that doesn't make the feelings any less real or urgent: you can explain lust as a biochemical reaction, but it doesn't make me want what I want any less. And I'm here, inside this meatbag, trying to make sense of a world distorted by these chemical reactions, and logic sometimes doesn't help with that. A different paradigm is sometimes needed.
So, all that said, what do I do on the high holidays? What do I do when I'm sitting there, being urged to repent my sins, and trying not to fall asleep? Why subject myself? The answer is kind of the same as the above: I'm still inside this meatbag, and I still crave meaning. I still need direction. And whether that direction comes from a book purportedly written by an entity, or from a feeling that I owe certain things to my fellow man because of some comsic duty, or because Dogar and Kazon command it of me, I have to find it somewhere. To do otherwise is to give in to nihilism, which may be logical, but isn't very satisfying. And, deep down inside, when the cantor intones the age old melodies of Kol Nidre, asking God to forgive me for the vows that I cannot keep, I can feel the stirrings of that truth, that urgent feeling I had at age 13, that there's something outside of myself that talks to me from without, but also from within, and that asks me to think of my life as part of a giant Rube Goldberg contraption with a singular end, to improve the world. And I am invited to examine those pieces, and see which of them are helping, and which are hurting. And to make a choice. And for who do I make that choice? אהיה אשר אהיה...I am that I am...
*Perhaps this is what was meant by Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill Part 1, when he says, "If on your journey you encounter God, God will be cut" by the superb craftmanship of the sword he produced. The relentless pursuit of perfection in engineering leaves no room for chance, or God, if every factor can be accounted for and controlled. The perfect sword will indeed cut God.