Rabbi Akiva and Intelligent Design

Something stuck in my head from 32 years ago, amazingly enough. The professor of my undergraduate biology course prefaced his remarks about biological adaptations by saying: “We don’t ask the teleological why.” Not being attuned to religious issues at the time, I didn’t give much thought to his point.

However, when I entered a Baal Teshuvah Yeshivah four years later I was astounded to find intelligent, well-educated people who challenged naturalism and its principal brainchild, evolution.

The teleological argument for the existence of God, inferring a Designer from the complexity of biological entities, is currently touted as intelligent design, although its proponents would be quick to assert that intelligent design is not creationism.

The only argument for God’s existence in the entire Talmudic literature is the argument from design:

A heretic came to Rabbi Akiva: “Who created the world?” he asked.

Rabbi Akiva answered, “The Holy One.”

The heretic challenged Rabbi Akiva: “Show me proof.”

Rabbi Akiva began by asking: “What is that you are wearing?”

“A piece of clothing,” the heretic replied.

“And who made it?” Rabbi Akiva continued.

“The weaver,” he replied.

“Show me proof!” Rabbi Akiva demanded.

The quote continues, but at this point it is important to note that Rabbi Akiva did not answer the heretic’s challenge for proof! He seemed to be returning the challenge: “You are challenging me to prove something to you, try and prove something to me.” No doubt, an intellectual giant as great as Rabbi Akiva could twist any argument the heretic could make into a pretzel. The point is clear, if you do not want to accept a certain conclusion, no arguments or proofs in the world will ever convince you.

Then Rabbi Akiva spoke to his students: “Just as a garment testifies upon a weaver, and a door testifies upon a carpenter, and a house testifies upon a builder, so too the world testifies that the Holy One created it. (Midrash Temurah in Midrash Aggados Bereishis).

Looking at the complexity of the universe and the living organisms it contains leads us to conclude there must be a Designer behind it all. Rav Elchonon Wasserman writes that every human being should instantly reach this intuitively obvious conclusion were it not for accepting the “bribe” of arrogance and physical desires, a bias known in psychology as cognitive dissonance.

This is why Rabbi Akiva presented the argument from design to his students but not to the heretic. We have to remove the bias of our physical desires and previously held conceptions, and come as students with a sense of openness to hear another point of view. Then we will be able to recognize truth when we hear it.

As baalei teshuvah, we can be especially sensitive to the need for openness and for accepting the truth when we hear it. Cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition, and we have to struggle with it no matter what color of the religious spectrum we are in. It is no wonder that Rabbi Akiva, given his background, would be the one to teach us this.

For an in-depth treatment of this concept in regards to the argument from design, see: http://www.2001principle.net/

10 comments on “Rabbi Akiva and Intelligent Design

  1. Wow, Jonathan–Shalom Aleichem! I remember you well! Take care and hatzlachah rabbah. You can contact me at dschall at netvision.net.il. Kol Tuv!

  2. WRT “crutches”: Not so long ago, after several years of refusing to take anti-depressants because I didn’t want my perceptions of the world around me to be “mediated” by a mood-altering drug, I found myself sitting in the psychiatrist’s office at the VA Medical Center, yet again. This time he said to me, “Listen: eyeglasses are a “crutch” — you can wear them, and see clearly; or, you can not wear them, and bump into walls, etc.” I wear eyeglasses…

    Now, at age 55, “crutches” are more acceptable to me, than at age 28 (when I was a bochur at Aish HaTorah). Life goes on, and often “crutches” are necessary, if one wants to keep on living. I decided that I do want to keep living, so I take those anti-depressants (as well as some other meds) on a daily basis. YMMV>

  3. Zach–

    David Linn has expressed well what I would have tried to say.

    Some other points:

    >>To folks like Dawkins…

    Dawkins writes in the introduction to the “Blind Watchmaker” that evolution provides the ability to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. That is plenty of bias to cause that he and others like him will avoid the fatal flaws in the theory.

    >>things like poor design, impossibility to differentiate between design and non-design in nature, junk dna, etc.

    Although I follow the creationism/ID/evolution debate as sort of a hobby, I don’t have the credentials to be very persuasive in these matters.

    I have seen valid responses to the points you raised, and you can poke around a bit on the Internet and find them easily.

    Rabbi Akiva is teaching us through his example that the debate is fruitless. He was telling the heretic that if your mind is made up you will never concede any point nor accept any proof.

    Reb Elchonon’s point is that bias clouds our ability to perceive truths that are self-evident.

    Against believing in God there are biases of great magnitude, including

    1) Our desire for importance, and not to think of ourselves as created beings.
    2) We want our freedom: “If there is no God, all is permitted.”
    3) Admitting we are wrong about a phenomenally great issue.
    4) An incomprehensible universe. (If there’s a God, why is there suffering? If there’s no God, there’s no question).

    The only bias I know for believing in God is so that one would have a “crutch.”

    If you accept this description of the biases, it’s clear which way the bias heavily leans.

  4. Zach,

    Rav Elchonon Wasserman, hy”d, posits that the very reason that great philosophical minds don’t “buy the argument by design” is because of the “bribe” of arrogance and physical desires mentioned by Rabbi Schallheim and illustrated by Aldous Huxley’s quote that I cited above. Rav Wasserman actually uses Aristotle as his example in the maimar.

    I don’t profess to undertanding the intricacies of the Intelligent Design debate but I do think that Rav Wasserman’s insight into human nature certainly sheds light on the question of why brilliant minds like Aristotle did not see a Creator in the world.

  5. This teleological argument goes back to before Aristotle. So ask yourself: why are there a lot of pretty smart atheist & agnostic philosophers and scientists who don’t buy the argument by design? Simply because it is really not an argument that convinces many people of God’s existence, but is primarily a justification for one’s beliefs. I’ve always believed in God and as a consequence believe in intelligent design (but I also believe that evolution is the method by which it is revealed.) To folks like Dawkins, organizational principles are inherent in both inorganic and biochemical processes. That the watchmaker is blind is argued from things like poor design, impossibility to differentiate between design and non-design in nature, junk dna, etc.

  6. Shortly after first learning Rav Elchonon’s HY’D maimer I stumbled upon this quote from Aldous Huxley, a famous atheist/agnostic (alternatively?) which seemed to support the point (there has been a lot of back and forth on what exactly Huxley meant but I think a reading supporting the point made in the maimer is as arguable as the others):

    “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption… The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantegous to themselves… For myself… the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation… sexual… [and] political.”

  7. Steg–

    If Rabbi Akiva was merely making a cosmological argument, i.e. First Cause, then why does he elaborate with examples of the garment, door, and building, which increase in order of complexity?

    That implies he is arguing from design.

  8. Or, it’s possible that he was making a kal v’chomer. If a garment, which is simple, testifies to the existence of a weaver, then surely the universe, which is far more complex than a garment, surely testifies to the existence of a Creator.

    The Wolf

  9. Is it really the specific complexity of the universe that Ribbí ‘Aqiva is using as a ‘proof’? I thought it’s the simple existence of the universe. The shirt exists because it was made; so too the universe exists because it was made.

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