Reasonable Doubts Blog

Poker anyone? (some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah)

Posted in Defining faith, holidays by Cheryl Berman on the September 6th, 2010

I’ll never forget the college paper I wrote on Kant’s critique of the Ontological Argument. St. Anselm conceived of the argument after much contemplation and prayer and it was based completely on reason. It went something like this: If I can conceive of a being than which no greater being can be conceived then this being must exist – because if it did not exist then another being than which no greater being can be conceived and which did exist – can be conceived – but this would be absurd. Nothing can be greater than a being than which nothing greater can be conceived! (Read it over a couple of times. It took me a few minutes too!) Technicalities aside, The Ontological argument was to become the subject of extensive debate over the course of the next few centuries as were the other proofs for the existence of God: the Argument from Design, Cosmological argument, Moral argument etc. The end result was a draw. Nobody can prove the existence of God, but nobody can disprove the existence of God either as Gutting pointed out a few weeks ago in the New York Times with his rebuttals of Dawkin’s attempts . The fact is religion was simply not meant to be decided over in a debate.

This point is brought out beautifully in an essay by Professor Nathan Aviezer (physics professor at Bar Illan). The essay is about the Anthropic Principle, a modern version of the argument from design which states that “1) very slight changes in the laws of nature would have made it impossible for life to exist, and 2) human life would not have been possible were it not for the occurrence in the past of a large number of highly improbable events. “ Professor Aviezer provides three examples of the Anthropic theory: A) If the nuclear force of nature would be only slightly weaker or slightly stronger the sun would either not shine or would explode. B) The earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If it would have been slightly closer or slightly farther life would not have been possible. c)The fact that a meteor destroyed the dinosaurs by seemingly random luck allowed for mammal life to survive. What’s more, apparently the impact of the meteor had to be of a very specific strength to cause the exact amount of damage necessary to allow for life as we know it today.

Professor Aviezer sheds some light on the significance of these facts with a metaphor. He says suppose you were playing a game of five card poker. In this game a` straight flush is a dream come true. It is the type of event that a person will talk about for the rest of his life. But suppose the same person is playing bridge. He is dealt his 13 cards and the first 5 cards in his hands spell out the very same straight flush. He will probably not even notice. The event will be valueless to him because he is judging things differently – by the rules of bridge not the rules of poker. “In other words,” Professor Aviezer writes, “the same rare event can be either wondrous or meaningless: it all depends on the importance that one attributes to the event itself.

Scientists all agree that the events that contribute to the existence of the planet and human beings are exceedingly rare. But whether or not they attribute meaning to this fact depends on how they value the human being. Is a human being simply another species, another card in a hand of a bridge game? Or is a human being something more, the most significant of all creations, the straight flush in a game of poker? It all depends on your perspective, on which card game you chose to play.

For many of us this is our job this Rosh Hashana – to decide which card game to play. Which perspective are we going to view the world from? Is there deeper meaning to human life? Can I sense some purpose in my own life? If so, what or who is it that has endowed my life with that value? Is there indeed something miraculous about the unlikely existence of the human race? So many of us get stuck on the question St. Anselm meditated on for so long, so many centuries ago: Trying to come up with an intellectual proof for the existence of God. But perhaps that’s not where the answer lies. Perhaps the answer is hidden in the card game we chose to play.

Here is the link to Prof. Aviezer’s article :

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