The survival of the Jews, notwithstanding persecutions and notwithstanding the sheer fact that millennia have passed since their first historical records, could be surprising. Some have even contended that this is an evidence that God protects the Jews (I will refer to this argument in the following as GpJ).
Against this background, "our" Moti Mizrahi wrote an interesting article that discusses the above hypothesis as a philosophical theory. What follows is a "Honest Review" of this article, i.e., a review which aims at stimulating a discussion.
More precisely Moti construes the argument about the existence of God out of the survival of the Jews as an Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). In fact, he maintains that it is impossible to say that the above is an Inference to the Only Explanation (IOE). IOE and IBE share the fact that they do not lead from a single premiss to a single conclusion, but rather have to deal with many possible conclusions and choose one among them. The difference between IOE and IBE is that in the former case one excludes all answers but one (as in the Indian instrument of knowledge called arthāpatti), whereas in IBE one can only say that a certain hypothesis is more likely than the others, not that it is certain.
In this sense, even the authors who discuss the IBE about the Existence of God out of the Jewish Survival, namely Rebecca Goldstein (2010) and Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen (1991) do not claim to prove that God exists, but merely suggest that God's existence is the most likely explanation for the unlikely phenomenon of the Jewish survival.
Arguing for God's existence through an IBE may look at first sight promising, since it avoids the oddities of trying to establish inferentially God's existence (but I will suggest at the end that it underlies the same kind of problems) and Moti argues that also Descartes's Third Meditation does something similar when it claims that God's existence is the best explanation for the presence of the idea of God in our minds (this reconstruction is due to Bonjour 2002).
Against this IBE Moti argues in various ways:
- The survival of the Jews is not more surprising than the survival of the Zoroastrians. Moti does not spell out the point, but I am quite confident that he means that also Zoroastrians are an ancient population and that they have also underwent persecutions and had to migrate away from their original country (most Zoroastrians moved in the Middle Age in Gujarat, India).
- Even if the survival of the Jews were something extraordinary, it is not clear how God's protection of the Jews should take place. Thus the GpJ argument raises more questions than it can answer and it is no longer the most economical explanation of the phenomenon.
- Even if one could somehow explain how God protects the Jews, it would still remain unclear who counts as a Jew. If it means a person who practices Judaism, what about converted Jews? And what about people who were born as Jews but do not practive Judaism any more?
Thus, Moti concludes that for the time being GpJ cannot lead to the existence of God as the best explanation of the Jewish survival. The situation might change, thoguh, if one can find out through which mechanism God's protection occurs.
After this short summary of the article I hope that readers will be curious enough to go to the article itself, which is relatively short and very much well-written, so that it makes a very pleasant read.
Next come my small doubts about Mozi's argumentation:
Concerning No. 2), Moti contends that there is no way we can construct GpJ as an IBE, since it is neither economical, nor does it have any other requisite of a best explanation. For instance, Moti says, it is either not testable, or the tests will be negative. In fact,
[W]e would expect humans to be created fairly soon after the creation of the universe […] [W]e would not expect humans to be created very long after the first plants and animals. For, then, what would be the point of having plants and animals for human pleasurem wihtout any humans aound to actually make use of them? Furthermore, if the Jews are indeed the chosen people, then we would expect them to arrive on the scene early in the history of the world. For what would be the point of creation without God's chosen people? (p. 9)
Moti does not say it explicitly, but I understand this argument as leading to the obvious consequence that, since the Jews are not more ancient than, say, the Neanderthalians, God's existence does not stand tests.
Although I am not a theologian nor a historian of Judaism, I am not sure that the tests imagined by Moti are valid. On the one hand, even according to the Biblical account, the human beings come at the end of creation and even the creation of the first five days is said by God to be "good", although there were no humans yet who could have taken advantage of it. As for the need of the Jews to be "arrive on the scene early in the history of the world", since they are the chosen people, I am also not sure. From my (surely too superficial) reading of the Bible I had imagined that the Jews had become God's chosen people due to the fact that they were the only ones who were faithful to His commands. I did not understand that same Biblical passages as meaning that God had chosen a priori only the Jews.
The next problem is more general, namely I wonder whether Rabbi Kelemen really meant the GpJ as an IBE. To me, it looks much more like an argument meant for Jews to enhance their ability to feel reverence for God. For a believer, the presence of God's protection in her life is probably something self-perceived, so that the argument becomes immediately, but subjectively persuasive.
Now, for a general conclusion: Personally, I wonder whether arguments about the existence of God have anything more than an intellectual significance. It might be fun to find a seemingly flawless argument for or against God's existence, but I doubt they will ever convince anyone. This is because —I am inclined to think— God's existence is not an ontological datum like, say, the existence of Pangea some 300 millions ago (the comparison in found in Moti's article).