Living up to The Truth

4: True Predictions

by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
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Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3

We have two conclusions from the last two chapters. (1) To act responsibly we must seek the truth and use our best estimate of the truth as our basis for action. Action on the basis of pragmatic considerations without regard to truth are irresponsible. Similarly, waiting for absolute proof before acting is irresponsible. (2) The exact weight of evidence required to mandate action cannot be stated precisely (and is even somewhat controversial). What we need show is that there is enough evidence to meet whatever standard is used in making responsible decisions. The appeal is to consistency: If you stick to your usual standards and act responsibly, then you must live according to the Torah.

Now we will begin a review of the evidence. I will start with two cautionary remarks. First, when I present evidence, the significance of the evidence is that it makes it probable that the Torah being true. To respond that it is still conceivable that the Torah is false is quite correct, but irrelevant. The goal is not to remove every conceivable alternative, it is to present the Judaism as a more probable alternative.

Second, we are now gathering evidence. To gather evidence means no one piece of evidence need carry the case by itself. This is similar to a courtroom procedure. If you want to convict a murderer, just finding his fingerprints at the scene of the crime isn't enough, just finding a weapon similar to the one that caused the murder in his house is not enough, just having a motivation is not enough, just his having been seen at the place of the murder at the time of the murder is not enough. But, when you put them all together, it can be enough. So, again, it will not be relevant to respond that "This piece of evidence is not enough to justify believing that the Torah is true." Of course it isn't. No one piece of evidence is enough. It is all the evidence together which is enough. We won't begin to sum up all the evidence until the last chapter. The point, then, is for each piece of evidence to be seen as relevant, to see that the most likely explanation of the evidence is that the Torah is true.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3

In Deuteronomy 28-30 there is a prediction of what will happen to the Jewish people if they don't live up to the standards of the Torah. It predicts conquest accompanied by wanton slaughter of the population: men, woman, children, old, young, and so on. It predicts an exile resulting in world-wide scatter, and that during this period of world-wide scatter, Jews will have no independent government. One result of the exile is that some Jews will be brought back by boat to Egypt to be sold as slaves, and they will not be purchased. Nevertheless, the Jewish people will survive, will never completely be destroyed, and will ultimately return to the land of Israel. It also predicts that the conqueror will speak a language that the Jewish people don't understand.

Now as we said in chapter II, what is crucial about this prediction is that it should be a unique prediction, namely, a prediction no one else can explain. Because if it is a prediction that other people can explain, it no longer functions as a crucial experiment. It no longer distinguishes between what you are claiming and what others can claim. So, let's ask ourselves about each of the details in this prediction, whether their coming true could have been explained by a sociological analysis of the times, or by a competing ideology - or whether it is something that someone could explain only from the Jewish point of view.8

[Of course, if someone should agree with our prediction from our sources, then his making that prediction cannot count for him against us! If Christians and Moslems accept Deuteronomy 28-30 and predict that the Jews will be exiled as a result of their failure to live up to the Torah, when that prediction comes true it does not give Christianity and Islam positive evidence against Judaism, since we all agree on that prediction.]

Now, let's see which of the details of this prediction could have been explained by an observer with a point of view other than that of the Torah. The prediction of conquest is not very difficult. Everybody gets conquered sooner or later.

There was a prediction of total destruction: a decimation of the population and exile. That was rare in the ancient world. It happened, but it was rare because the purpose of conquest was economic. Typically it was a question of acquiring colonies and taxing them. You can't tax people if you slaughter the population and exile them. Now, I'm not talking about theft. Of course you want to take all the gold and silver, gems, fine linen and so on. You may take the young, fine, strong men off as slaves. You may want to take the good looking, young woman for sexual purposes. But, you don't wantonly slaughter the rest of the population because there is no point in destroying your tax base! During their 300 years of rule, the Romans did this only to Carthage and the Jews. So, the prediction of the wanton slaughter of the population and exile were predictions that could not be anticipated to really occur because they were not the normal procedure in the ancient world.

Now, let's take the prediction that the conqueror will speak a language that you don't understand. Why should I think that? Neighboring countries typically understood one another's languages. There was enough commerce and travel for each to be familiar with the language of the other. Couldn't we have been conquered by a neighbor? Alternatively, couldn't we be conquered by a country that spoke an "international language?" Many Jews understood Greek. Greek was in those days similar to what English is today. Business contracts, trade and diplomacy were conducted in Greek. Had any Greek speaking nation conquered and exiled us, this prediction would have been false. But the Romans conquered us and they spoke Latin. Latin was a language with which Jews were not familiar.

If a nation is going to be exiled, who says that it will end up all over the world? Why should that be an automatic consequence of exile? Not everyone who was exiled from their countries ended up with identifiable communities all over the world. Even when the Babylonians exiled us 500 years earlier, we didn't end up all over the world. The vast majority of the population was taken off to Babylon, a large group went to Alexandria in Egypt, but there were many places in the world without identifiable groups of Jews.

If they were going to end up in exile, how could one predict with confidence that some of them will be taken back to Egypt in boats to be sold, and that there will not be anybody there to buy them? Why should one think that? It is true that there was a slave trade flourishing and that there were known slave routes, but who is to say that it would definitely happen?

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If you are going to predict exile scattered all over the world, how can you be sure that at no point will any Jewish society form an independent government in some portion of the earth's surface? Don't forget, we are talking about two thousand years ago. Two thousand years ago the world wasn't organized with maps and boundary lines so that every square millimeter of the earth's surface belongs to one nation or another, and sometimes to two or three. On the contrary, there were vast areas of the earth's surface that were unclaimed, unsettled, and simply wild; for example, parts of Russia, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central Africa. Who is to say that Jewish exiles would not form an independent society in one of these places?

Now that means that for each of these predictions, if I don't have a Jewish perspective, and I look at it neutrally, or I look at it as a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Taoist, a Confucianist, or as an atheist, I would expect them not to occur, and I would not be able to explain them if they did occur.

If I were to assign probabilities to each of these detailed predictions from any of those non-Jewish points of view, the probabilities would be very low. Total destruction and exile, let's say that this occurred in 10% of all ancient wars. Then a non-Jewish observer would give it a probability of 1/10. How often did the conqueror speak an unknown language? We don't know. Neighbors did fight, and the languages of great empires were widely known. Let's say generously that it happened a quarter of the time giving us a probability of 1/4. Being scattered all over the world as a result of exile, as far as I know, didn't happen at all. Strictly I suppose the probability should be zero! But let's be generous and give it a probability of 1/10. To take a nation that is scattered all over the world and thus be unable to organize itself into an independent society, again, I don't know what the probability of that would be, so I'll give it a probability of 1/4. To survive under these conditions and return to one's land has never happened in the history of the world - strictly speaking we should give it a probability of zero! But let's be generous and say 1/10.

Now, when you have predictions for a sequence of events, and each event has a probability, and you want to know the probability of them all coming true, you multiply the probabilities. So, we multiply 1/10 * 1/4 * 1/10 * 1/4 * 1/10 and we come out with a probability of 1/16000. This is a very small number. That is the confidence that a neutral observer would have in this prediction. What is the likelihood that a prediction like this would come true? One chance in every sixteen thousand tries. Given the evidence the observer had to go on, there is no way for him to explain why it came true.

But, it happened. That being the case, this is what I called earlier a unique prediction. It is a prediction whose truth no one else can explain. Had anyone seen the prediction before it happened, the response should have been that this is fantasy. Therefore, when it comes true, it contributes to the truth of Judaism. It is a relevant piece of evidence.

[ Four technical remarks. (1) Many details from Deuteronomy 28 have been omitted. There are two reasons: either the language in which they are expressed is poetical and cannot be precisely defined (and thus we cannot prove that the text means specifically what in fact happened), or they are predictions which are very likely to happen in the context of destruction and exile, so that they would not significantly lower the probability. (2) Some of the probabilities above are conditional - world-wide scatter given exile; no independence given world-wide scatter; survival and return given scatter. Only if they are understood this way is it appropriate to multiply them to get the probability of all the events occurring. My numbers are meant as (overly generous) estimates of these probabilities. (3) The probabilities are for the predictions coming true; they are not for the predictions having been made. We can easily think of reasons why someone would want to make a frightening prediction, but we would be very surprised if what was predicted occurred. (4) Since there are many nations, perhaps it is not surprising if one of them suffered the predictions of Deut. 28. Why then do we regard it as surprising that it happened to us? Because we predicted that it would happen to us, and it did. ]

Consider this parallel. Suppose we set 1000 coins flipping and predict that one of them will show ten heads in a row. That would not be surprising. But if we pick a particular coin and predict that it will show ten heads in a row, then the fact that there are other coins flipping is irrelevant - the odds against this coin are still 1024 to one.

Now could it have come true by accident? Yes, it could have. I freely grant that because we are not playing Descartes. We are not interested in a mere a possibility. We are interested in a possibility for which there is more evidence. Anything can happen by chance, but the likelihood of this happening by chance is one in sixteen thousand. What this indicates is that whoever wrote this had access to a source of information beyond the natural. What that source was and how to describe it we don't know so far. We are only drawing minimal inference from the events. That seems to me to be what the evidence indicates.

Finally, I will repeat again that I am not trying to prove that Judaism is true based on this one prediction. One true prediction rarely proves that a theory is true. I'm merely pointing out that this is relevant evidence. The full justification will come later when we take all the evidence together. But this is certainly a piece of objective evidence which ought to interest us. It ought to show us that the quest of the realist to find a truth which can be justified is not a quest in vain.

Next: Chapter V - Archeology
Previous: Chapter III - Belief and Action: Criteria for Responsible Decision

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