You’re not as smart as you think you are.[i] So read the daunting headline in The Economist. Think about it: you use zippers all the time, right? Do you know how one works? Sit and think and try and explain the actual function of a zipper: having a hard time? Are we as smart as we think we are if we can’t explain the function of objects we use every day? According to this interview with cognitive scientist Steven Sloman, we really don’t even know the half about how the world works:
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: [Steve,] Can you give me some examples that show how little we know about how the world works?
STEVEN SLOMAN: Absolutely. I
can ask you how well you understand how a toilet works. So let's say on a one
to seven scale, how well do you think you know how a toilet works?
TREMONTI: Okay, I'll say
six... Do you want me to explain it?
SLOMAN: Tell me. How does a toilet work?
TREMONTI: Okay. Well, the water goes in the tank. So you have a pipe of water going in the tank and when you flush it, the pressure of the water in the tank flushes the debris in the toilet out. It goes down a pipe and into the sewage system. Am I right?
SLOMAN: Not quite. In
fact, toilet works by what’s called a siphon effect. There's this inverted
U-shape tube that comes out of the bowl. The tank puts water in the bowl which
raises the level to that above the U-shaped tube and that causes this
effect—the siphon effect… which sucks the water out of the bowl.
TREMONTI: Okay. So it’s not the pressure of the water.
SLOMAN: It’s not the pressure of the water. Right. But actually the point of the example is most people don’t actually come up with as elegant an explanation as you did. Most people, when asked that question, say, “You know what? I have no idea how a toilet works.”
TREMONTI: I thought I knew because I actually fixed one recently and I thought I really knew.
SLOMAN: Most people think they know. But trying to explain, they discover that they don’t. The act of explanation bursts their bubble of understanding.[ii]
The flushing of a toilet is the perfect example of our bursting bubble of understanding. Perhaps we sit here this morning and realize we know less than we guessed about indoor plumbing; perhaps our minds are still at work trying to explain exactly how a zipper works. Or, maybe, more seriously, as we sit in this sanctuary anticipating a new year, our minds are devoid of understanding how our culture could have changed so drastically in this past year we Jews called 5777. From one Rosh HaShanah to the next, we have seen our American society send reason, logic, and standard semantics to the curb. Who could have imagined last year that “bigly” or “fake news” would be commonplace coinage in our kingdom?[iii] How has it happened that logically non-compossible facts and utterly fictitious explanations have become the norm? How is it that we can even speak of words like “Covfefe” … which my spellcheck has unironically tried to change 100 times while preparing this sermon?
Earlier this year, a friend shared a thought that has stayed with me. What we are witnessing, he explained, is not only the rejection of reason, the devaluation of the intellect: America, he said, is witnessing the Repudiation of the Enlightenment. The Repudiation of the Enlightenment: those words have weaved their ways in and out of my thoughts over the past year. Often, I think it’s true: when logic seems irrelevant, when rational arguments have no seeming place in society, when such an entity as an “alternative fact” even exists, it seems as if we have ultimately arrived at the end of the Enlightenment. This idea is as troubling to me as an American as it is to me as a Jew.
The intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment—forged in the 18th Century “Age of Reason”—advanced ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, and the unity of the human family. Not only were these ideas of ultimate import to our American democracy, they inspired the Jews of Europe to continue to evolve our tradition, to reform Judaism, to assert our equal place as Jews in wider civic society. Early Reform Jews wedded progressive thought with our tradition’s values: we asserted the freedom for all to make religious decisions for themselves; we demanded a tolerant appreciation for learning from and sharing with our non-Jewish neighbors; we shifted our goal from any particular Jewish political success to the universal improvement of humankind. Reform Judaism was forged in the cauldron of Enlightenment. So fitting for this day on which we celebrate the Creation of the world, the early watchword of the Reform Movement was, “Yehi Or/Let There be Light!” We so believed in the power of human reason embodied in these words from Genesis that we engraved them—in Hebrew and English—on the Ark doors of our Temple sanctuary. Chicago Sinai Congregation was founded over 150 years ago to be a beacon of reason and progress—of Enlightenment ideals—to the Jewish people, and through them, to America as well.
Any repudiation of the Enlightenment would be especially difficult for Reform Jews. Given all that we have experienced this past year—from neighbors with whom we cannot agree about fundamental facts to the explicit presidential endorsement of Nazi sympathizers as “good people”—I think it is important for us, on this day when we celebrate the great light of Reason being created, to evaluate how we respond as Jews to our culture’s assault on concepts of truth, tolerance and progress. If our Enlightenment has been repudiated, we need to learn how to respond, how to react, how to re-form our community and our commitments for the future. If we do this right, we can leave this sanctuary not with a communal shrug of discontent, but instead with a shared sense of how to forge a new way forward, together.
This is not about conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican. To paraphrase an old song of the Seventies, if you feel there are jokers to the right of us, so too are there clowns to the left.[iv] Yes, the alt-Right and its KKK cronies are frightening and real. But, let’s be honest: to the left we Jews need to pay some serious attention as well. Here in Chicago this summer, amidst the many events surrounding our city’s 48th Annual Pride week, the Chicago Dyke March Collective kicked three women out of the celebration for carrying rainbow flags embossed with a Star of David.[v] The Collective, despite its mission pledging “to bridge together communities across race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, size, gender identity, [and more],” forcibly removed Jewish women for proudly displaying Jewish stars.[vi] In addressing this hurtful decision, organizer Alexis Martinez offered an inexplicable explanation. On the one hand, Martinez contends the conflict exceeds her capacities, claiming the Collective is “not in the business of solving a problem that American presidents have been unable to deal with.” Yet, even as Martinez explains how politics are beyond their reasoning skills, she proudly asserts that the Collective chooses sides and takes an “anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian” position.[vii] My philosophy professors would have poked so many holes in such inconsistent thinking that my essay would not only have looked like Swiss cheese, but would have been flagged with a big, fat, “F”.
My philosophy professors might have flunked me for resorting to spurious arguments and drawing illogical conclusions. But had I been a cognitive science major, my teachers might have responded differently. They would have pointed out that what we see in Alexis Martinez’s doubling down on a bad decision—or what we witness in the spin of Sean Spicer—is a classic case of “Confirmation Bias”. Confirmation Bias is the psychological phenomenon in which even the most reasonable thinkers cling to their own hypothesis regardless of how much data disagrees. Peter Wason, who in the seventies discovered how widespread is this human tendency to defend our own opinions even in the face of facts, explains that intelligent adults “adhere to their own explanations with remarkable tenacity”.[viii] In a famed experiment on Confirmation Bias, researchers gathered students with opposing views on capital punishment: half the students were opposed to it, and the other half favored it as a deterrent to crime.[ix] The students were asked to respond to two studies: one shared evidence in support of deterrence, while the other provided data that called deterrence into question. Both studies were entirely fabricated, and were designed to present equally compelling statistics. What happened? The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the studies, regardless of countermanding data, both sets of students were more strident than before.
Intelligent adults cling to their own explanations with remarkable tenacity. Sound like MSNBC or Fox News? Feel like an America seemingly split in two since last November, with neither side demonstrating any interest in listening to or learning from the other? Remind you of the two ineffective years the two sides of our Springfield government dug in their heels and held our State hostage? “Confirmation Bias” is a fancy psychological term for what we all experience in the silos of our FaceBook feeds: we seek that which makes us seem right, and turn away from that which could prove us wrong. While there are many explanations for the repudiation of reason, a continuing theme is that there is no one to talk to: everyone is so convinced that they are right, each of us can tell you exactly why so many other people are wrong. We can neither listen to others nor be moved from our positions: how can a divided society ever come together?
How can a way of life founded on finding rational solutions to life’s problems survive in the age of Confirmation Bias? We find the answer, ironically, in addressing the question of how a fly zippers or a toilet bowl flushes. While politicians and pundits seem to have been assaulting reason and reasonability at every opportunity, cognitive scientists have been gauging the limits of reason in order to understand how we might build a society of understanding. The reason we don’t know exactly how our toilet flushes is that we rely on the expertise of others for so many mundane tasks. Scientists call this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth”. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something at which human beings excel: we’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate that, we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.[x] It is only when we are pushed for an explanation, as in the interview about the toilet’s flush, that we begin to encounter the limits of what we actually know. We often give ourselves credit for being remarkably smart, until a good question pierces our understanding and bursts our bubble.
[xi] One of Sinai’s own exposed this inconsistencyclearly in a brilliant letter to the editor, writing “[Jewish] Refugees who were refused a safe haven in America and elsewhere] found refuge in the State of Israel and they still do. Exactly which refugees do you support? Who do you like enough? [xii] Good question! Well, how do we make sure our decisions aren’t simply based on whom we like enough? How can we ensure our most important decisions are not founded on ill-informed, biased opinions? The antidote to thinking ourselves so smart is to slow down and try not to rely on others’ expertise. The first step is to think for ourselves: first person, singular. Remember the interview about the flushing toilet? When we stop and ask if we can explain our own positions, we can move past simple assumptions and find good answers. At the very least, we will know what we do not know. Stopping to ask, “How can I explain this?” is the first step to counter Confirmation Bias. Our willingness to think for ourselves can burst the bubble of our ill-informed intellectual stubbornness. But thinking for ourselves is hard. Remembering to stop and think for ourselves is even harder.
Luckily, we Jews actually have a tool dedicated to bursting our stubborn bubbles, to waking us up from the sleepwalking of lazily inheriting intellectual arguments. On this day when we celebrate the cosmic work of Creating, this tool is front and center: it is our ram’s horn, the shofar.[xiii] The shofar is sounded to make us stop and think about ourselves, to make us think for ourselves. The shofar calls us to attention, alerts us to well-trod paths down which we mistakenly walk, pierces not only our ears but also our intellectual smug self-satisfaction. The Shofar forces us to examine our lives, implores us to ask and to answer those difficult questions from which we usually shy away with the illusion of explanatory depth. The Shofar is the Jewish tool par excellence for our own improvement; it was not lost on our Sages that you cannot say the Hebrew word for “self-improvement”, l’hishtaper, without saying the name of our ram’s horn, shofar.[xiv]
The sound of the Shofar is meant to call our individual attention to our own shortcomings. The Tekiah is intended as antidote to any bias we might possess for our own preferences, any cerebral shortcuts we might take on topics of serious consideration. But how do we hear the shofar today when we know so many members of our society are ignoring its piercing powers? What does the well-formulated Op-Ed of a Jewish Lesbian matter to a Dyke March Collective unwilling to allow their own biases to be challenged? Will the deep answers I discover regarding Capital Punishment have any effect on elected officials who ignore my voice, my advice? What power does rational thought possess to counter a resurgent white supremacy hideously married to anti-Semitism? How can anyone’s individual transformation help change a culture? To answer these questions, let us return once more to Reason.
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, two—you guessed it!—cognitive scientists see no cause for panic, every reason to be assured. They explain that human rationality developed as an evolutionary adaptation: reason suits our need to collaborate in groups. Working collaboratively with others means we rely on reason to consider a plan, to argue about which tactics are most likely to be successful, and to ensure we share appropriately in mutual risks and rewards. Imagine a pre-historic hunt: needing food, our ancestors considered how to trap a wooly mammoth, argued about the best course of action, and—when successful—shared the spoils with all who participated. Elaborate tools of communication and critique were the prerequisite of survival. The intellectual faculty of reason is nothing but an evolutionary tool for collaboration. Reason does its work if, and only if, we work together.[xv]
Our response to any repudiation of reason is beginning to become clearer. In an age where biases abound, we know we must think for ourselves, free ourselves of the faulty practice of relying on others regarding issues of ultimate import. But thinking in the first person singular is just the first step; our reason, our very capacity to cogitate, was created to collaborate. Once we have thought for ourselves, we must shift to the arena of the first person plural: we must test our theories against the critical capacities of others. The problems with reason—whether they creep in through confirmation bias or arise through illusion of explanatory depth—are exposed when we confuse the first person plural with the first person singular, when we conflate the “I” with the “we”. The truth is, we need both. Our ability to think clearly is neither perfect nor exists in splendid isolation. We must think for ourselves to make certain we don’t succumb to others’ biases; we must then share our thoughts in a collaborative environment to test the mettle of our musings. When our thinking starts within and is then shared without, our reason—and our Enlightenment—are on the road to recovery.
This response to our cultural assault on truth, tolerance and progress is intrinsically Jewish. Our road to recovery is only complete with the sounding of our Shofar. In truth, the message of our ram’s horn for millennia has mentioned this movement from the singular to the plural. No lesser sage than Moses Maimonides claims the cry of our Shofar says to us the following:Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep; rouse yourselves from your slumber. Examine your deeds, and return to God. Remember your Creator—you who are caught up in the daily routine, losing sight of eternal truth; you who waste your time in vain pursuits that neither benefit nor save. Look to your souls, improve your ways and your deeds.[xvi] The Shofar sounds to wake us from our slumber, to rouse us from the rut of sleepwalking through inherited ideas and ideologies. The shofar calls us, penetrates our ears as individuals, waking each of us to our clearest capacity. And when I say “calls us”, it is no rhetorical slip from singular to plural. The Shofar’s voice speaks to us as a collective, as collaborators, as the plural community. Awake you sleepers—in Hebrew, atem, “you”, second person plural—examine your deeds, all of you who are caught up in the daily routine; return to Divine ways, you, the collective who have lost sight of the truth. The Shofar calls to us as a community; our High Holy Days are about waking up to our possibilities as a community, as a collective. Our repentance starts with inward reflection, but our restorative course is shared with others: our road to recovery on Rosh HaShanah moves from our individual reflections to our communal will to change.
But our High Holy Days take us even farther than the reaches of contemporary cognitive science. For all that we learn about the need first to think for ourselves and then to test our ideas with others, today’s researchers of reason have little advice to give about finding the proper community with whom to test our individual thoughts. Contemporary life is so channeled that we can narrow our communities—whether on cable networks or social media feeds—to those who will never really challenge our assumptions, to those who will only confirm our own biases. This is where the shofar’s moral call extends beyond the limits of research; this is the precise place where our Jewish tradition gives us the guidance we need to affirm out commitment to Enlightenment. Yes, our shofar calls us to think for ourselves, to reflect on our lives. Yes, the shofar calls us together as one community united for common purpose. But the shofar goes an important step further, and defines what our common purpose must be: to improve our ways and deeds, not to waste time in deeds that neither benefit nor save.
The shofar’s blast provides us with the best litmus test of any action: our deeds are worthwhile if they either benefit our wider society or, quite literally, save other people.[xvii] This is the particularly Jewish lesson we desperately need to hear: the only productive use of our individual reflection or collaborative skills as a community is to build a society that benefits all, that works to save any in distress. A deed is worth doing if it benefits and saves; other actions—especially those that deprive and dismiss—are simply not worth doing. Depriving LGBTQ Jews from marching proudly with a rainbow flag? Not worth doing. Dismissing those worried about the continued marching of neo-Nazis by arguing many of them are “nice people”? Worthless. Talking with our friends, and even with our enemies, to make certain our assumptions aren’t tilted by our biases? Now that’s beneficial. Working to make sure Jews and Latinos and African-Americans feel safe in the face of rising tides of hate? That’s the very real Jewish work of salvation. The task to which we as a collective are literally called, the only work worth doing, is building a better world that benefits all.
The sounding of the Shofar reminds us not just of those deeds worth doing, but—in so doing—repudiates of any repudiation of Enlightenment. On this day when we commemorate the Creation of the great light that grants us vision, our awareness of the frailty of our sight is no need to cast aside the value of the light, the value of what’s right. We know many others fall into pitfalls of daily routines; we see that even those faculties which allow us to think clearly and collaboratively are still susceptible to bias and illusion. But that hardly means that, together, collaborating positively and thinking deeply, we cannot create schemes and dreams that will benefit all. The Enlightenment has not been Repudiated, but it is under attack. Therefore all of us who cling to logic, any of us who hope to structure a society that benefits all, need to work together to show how beautifully our light of reason can be brought to shine when we work together for the salvation and benefit of all humanity.
May it be our will.
[i] The Economist, Crowd Force, “You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are,” April 8, 2017.
[ii] The Current, With Anna Maria Tremonti, originally Aired April 10th, 2017 Interview with Steven Sloman, author, along with Philip Fernbach, ofThe Knowledge Illusion. Interview edited for length.http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-april-10-2017-1.4061220/april-10-2017-full-episode-transcript-1.4064540#segment3
[iii] On the timing and arrival of these and other figures of speech created by or about Donald Trump, see, Paola Estrella, Odyssey, “8 New ‘Trumpisms’ that have been heard since the Election”, July 18th, 2017. Evidently, “bigly” is in fact a word, one our President “accidentally resurrected”. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/8-tr umpisms-that-have-been-heard-since-election
[iv] Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You,” Stealers Wheel, 1972.
[v] Bari Weiss, “I’m Glad the Dyke March Banned Jewish Stars,” The New York Times, June 27, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/opinion/im-glad-the-dyke-march-banned-jewish-stars.html
[vi] The full Mission and Vision statement of the Chicago Dyke March Collective is: Chicago Dyke March Collective is a grassroots mobilization and celebration of dyke, queer, bisexual, and transgender resilience. It is an anti-racist, anti-violent, volunteer-led, grassroots effort with a goal to bridge together communities across race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, size, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, culture, immigrant status, spirituality, and ability. We challenge fatphobia and are body positive. https://chicagodykemarch.wordpress.com/about-2/
[vii] Gretchen Rachel Hammon, “Dyke March Collective member responds to criticism and attacks,” Windy City Times, July 5, 2017, p. 10. This particular issue of Windy City Times was mostly focused on the happenings of and debate surrounding the Dyke March; I am especially appreciative of Chloe Wager for bringing me a copy.
[viii] Peter Wason, “Reasoning about a Rule, “ Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1968, p. 142.
[ix] Charles Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper, “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 11, 1979. https://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/teaching/articles/jpsp-1979-Lord-Ross-Lepper.pdf
[x] Elizabeth Kolbert, “That’s What You Think: Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017, p. 70. I am indebted to Kolbert not only for the language of the preceding paragraph, but also for leading me to the works of Sloman & Fernbach, and, more importantly—The Enigma of Reason by Mercier & Sperber. I owe a huge debt as well to Sinai’s own Arnie Hirsch, who suggested I read Kolbert’s article.
[xi] Nowhere was this bubble-bursting phenomenon captured more completely than in Bari Weiss’ brilliant editorial, “I’m Glad the Dyke March Banned Jewish Stars” [see footnote 5]. Explaining why anti-Semitism is as much a problem “on the far-left as it is on the alt-right,” Weiss offers serious challenges to the heretofore inviolate progressive notions of Intersectionality, which often stratifies people according to their suffering. The dismantling of Interdectionality—despite some of the positive lessons it has brought—would be the subject of an entirely different sermon.
[xii] Sinai’s own Cara Meiselman, “To The Editor,” The Windy City Times, July 5, 2017, p. 13.
[xiii] Our rabbinic tradition even imagines that the Shofar was created during the cosmic Creation we commemorate today. See Mishnah Avot 5:6.
Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. And these are they: The mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach in Numbers 16:32]; and the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 21:17]; and the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Bilaam in Numbers 22:28–30]; and the rainbow [that served as a covenant after the flood in Genesis 9:13]; and the manna [that God provided the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus 16:4–21]; and the staff [of Moshe]; and the shamir (the worm that helped build the Temple without metal tools); and the letters; and the writing; and the tablets [all of the latter three, of the Ten Commandments]. And some say, also the destructive spirits, and the burial place of Moshe, our teacher, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say, also the [first human-made] tongs, made with [Divine] tongs.
[xvi] Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, “The Laws of Teshuvah/Repentance,” 3:4. The translation is from Mishkan HaNefesh, the 2017 High Holy Day Prayerbook for the Reform Movement, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I altered but one word of their translation, rendering the Hebrew “יוֹעִיל /Yo’il” more properly as “benefit” than “profit”. The full text from Maimonides follows:
[xvii] We arrive at this conclusion by reasoning logically through the contrapositive that it will only be deeds that can benefit or save that will not be a waste of our time. The laws of the contrapositive work as follows. For a true statement, such as “If Q, then P” then only other version of it that is also true is “If not-Q, then not-P”, which is known as the Contrapositive. Thus for Maimonides’ statement “If something is worthless, then is does not benefit and does not save,” the contrapositive is “If something benefits and saves, then it is not-worthless, that is to say, worthwhile and of value.” This philosophy major truly thanks you for reading this final footnote!