Saturday, July 21, 2012

Screech atheists

This post, by guest blogger Fatima Lipschitz, is part of a series of reflections on chief rabbi Sacks’ “The Great Partnership”. “Fat Lips” (as “Sacksy” calls her) complements my “left-brain” academic criticisms (I, II, III, IV) with a note of “right-brain” personal support for the chief rabbi’s call for debate amongst people as reasoning and reflective as himself, one that by-passes those infantile screech atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.

The Chief Rabbi and I, being much holier than thou, don’t like screech atheists. Sure we have had our differences—eating gefilte fish from the small end, not the large?—but on this we see eye to eye. We soar like eagles, aloft and aloof, above the hawkish din of Dawkins and Dennett and the squawkish harrying of Harris and Hitchens. Our eagle’s eye view affords us an expansiveness that lowly creatures of hemmed in horizons cannot know. And what we pineapples of politeness think is, screech atheists are as yesteryear as the dodo.

Now, some people, far lowlier than thou, dare to claim that the Chief Rabbi’s disdain for screech atheists amounts to ingratitude of the intellect. (Honestly, what word less befits that gentleman!) If it weren’t for screech atheists marking out one extreme of the debate, they claim, the middle ground, which he and I so effortlessly command, would not be so clearly discernible. To decry the vanguard whilst following in their path is close to hypocrisy.

But do we need reminding? The Rabbi is a shmatta mensh, a man of the cloth. He has a tradition to defend: mankind wakes up, one fine apple-ripened morning, and perceives how nicely his world meets his needs. He doesn’t start rootling around in the undergrowth, trying to figure out how things got to be that way. He looks G-d squarely in the eye, and says, “Thank you L-rd, for giving us noses because, without them, our glasses would fall off and then we wouldn’t be able to see your handiwork clearly.” Maybe Dawkers and Hitchers did something to pave the way for the Chief Rabbi’s philosophical triumph; like G-d, I won’t be drawn. But you can’t expect to the Chief Rabbi to worry about evolution, about who tilled the field in which he spills his seed.

In fact, I met that atheist, Ms Millicent Flabbergast, at confession the other day—or maybe it was the mikveh—and she said to me:

“If it weren’t for screech atheists, the chief rabbi would never have been goaded to give us what is”—and here I paraphrase—“the strongest possible defence of religion and faith”—and not as Ms Flabbergast put it, the greatest thing since sliced bacon. “He should acknowledge that.
“Besides, religions are bullies. Maybe not in today’s cosmopolis, where they’ve learned some manners. But go elsewhere, to Jerusalem, Jedda, or Jacksonville, or take cosmopolites back to their childhoods, and there is religion, big and bullying. And what do you do to bullies? You stand up to them! Catharsis for some, protection for others.
“If some atheists screech, it’s only because they’re forced to, to be heard above the bellowing bollocks that billow from pulpits.”

For the Chief Rabbi to merit temerity of this order! There’s just no way of responding to such criticisms.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Abuse of alphabets in Jonathan Sack’s The Great Partnership

Now that I’ve gotten over my shock and horror (I, II, III), here is a straightforward summary of the errors that underlie one of the central arguments of the chief rabbi’s attempt at a grand synthesis of spirituality with science.

Sacks’ argument runs that Hebrew (being written right-to-left and without vowels) engages the right hemisphere of the brain (and so engenders or conduces a right-brain worldview), whereas Greek (being written left-to-right and with vowels) engages the left hemisphere (and so engenders or conduces a left-brain worldview). Hence, Sacks asserts, removing the Hebraic (Judeo-Christian) element of our society makes it, and us, one-sided, unbalanced, unstable: wholesome societies are comprised of whole people who use the left and right hemispheres of their brains.

What follows is simply a list of three types of errors in his writing-systems-based argument: failures of fact, of unconsidered alternatives, and of “big picture” synthesis. I leave you draw your own conclusions.

But please don’t read this as: “Oh, Sacks got his linguistics wrong. Guess I’d better skip that bit and read the rest of the book.” The questions the list of errors raises are: How difficult would it have been to avoid these errors? How likely is that The Great Partnership really understands and values science and scholarship? Is it really qualified to offer “big picture” solutions concerning society, knowledge, and meaning?

You can’t fight off a locust swarm with a fly swat. So, if I concentrate on the abuse of alphabets, it’s not because there aren’t problems elsewhere. I’m just tending to my own backyard. (Not that I’m ruling out adding in another couple of cents’ worth later…)

Errors arising from failure to check or reflect on basic facts

1. Hebrew does not write without vowels.

EVIDENCE. If so, gamal (camel), gamul (weaned), gimel (letter ג), and gomel (benefactor)—and gmala, gmali, gmalo (her/my/his camel), etc.—would all be written identically. They aren’t.

2. Presence of vowels does not mean that Greek (English) is read letter by letter, as opposed to ‘big picture’-wise reading for “vowelless” Hebrew.

EVIDENCE. The closest we come to letter-by-letter reading is when we encounter unknown words, like isobutylparaben. Otherwise, we recognise words in a single glance. This is the basis of the common psycholinguistic/neurolinguistic experimental technique of ‘masked priming’, in which subjects read words that are flashed at them so quickly that they are not aware of having seen anything.

3. Reading in Greek (English) versus Hebrew (Arabic) does not show opposite lateralization.

EVIDENCE. See the left lateralization (left inferior fusiform gyrus and left middle fusiform gyrus) of brains reading Hebrew and English here. (Besides a lit review, I followed up with researchers in Jerusalem, London, Paris, and in the joint New York University – Abu Dhabi research team.)

4. Purported generalization. Voweled scripts run left-to-right. Vowelless run right-to-left.

COMMENT. The Great Partnership asserts that the opposing voweliness and direction of Greek and Hebrew cannot be coincidence. If this statement is meant to cover just Greek and Hebrew, then it is a basic error of reasoning: with only two data points, any correlation could be a coincidence. The statement only has content if taken as a generalization, in which case it is clearly false.

EVIDENCE. Voweled scripts not running left-to-right: Ladino, Meroitic, Mongolian, Sogdian, Sorani, Thaana (Maldives), Yiddish. Vowels are largely predictable in Iatmul, Kalam, Maltese, Yimas, yet these are not written right-to-left.

Errors arising from failure to consider alternative explanations.

5. Ancestry and ambient systems, not vowellessness, account for direction.

EVIDENCE. Hebrew and other Semitic scripts inherit right-left direction from Proto-Sinaitic, which inherited it from hieratic. Voweled right-left scripts with inherited/borrowed direc- tion: Ladino (from Hebrew), Meroitic (from Egyptian), Thaana (from Arabic), Yiddish (from Hebrew). Similarly, Iatmul, etc. inherit direction from Latin (or daughter systems). Vertical inheritance or borrowing from Chinese (or daughter systems): Japanese, Korean, Manchurian, Mongolian, Old Uyghur, ’Phags Pa, Sogdian.

6. Being an Afroasiatic (Semitic) language accounts for the capacity substantially to underrepresent vowels (what TGP misnames “vowellessness”).

EVIDENCE. In all of the following cases, parent scripts are used for Afroasiatic languages, daughter scripts for non-Afroasiatic ones: Greek (Hellenic) added vowels to the Phoeni- cian script; Ladino (Romance), to Hebrew; Meroitic (isolate), to Egyptian (hierogryphs and hieratic); Sogdian (Iranian) to Syriac; Sorani (Iranian), to Arabic; Yiddish (Germanic) to Hebrew.

7. Underrepresentation of vowels in Afroasiatic languages is derivative of a grammatical quirk (not of directionality, or other causes).

EVIDENCE. Afroasiatic languages have the property that prefixes/suffixes predict (to within a small margin of error) the vowels of the root. E.g., m (the present participial prefix; cf, English ing), prefixed to a verb determines the missing vowels (e.g., MSPR = mesaper; MTYL = metayel; MGMZ = megamez, etc.; or, if t is also present, e.g., MTPRD = mitpared; MTGDL = mitgadel; MTRSN = mitrasen; etc.).

COMPARISON I. Predictable material is generally omitted in writing systems. E.g., English does not represent the change in vowels triggered by ity in rapid ∼ rapidity (rapəd ∼ rəpid-ity), nor the stress shift (rápid ∼ rapíd-ity), nor the aspiration (rapid ∼ raphid-ity).

COMPARISON II. English, like most non-Afroasiatic languages, does not have affixes that deter- mine the vowels within the verb. Consider Wh’s dltng? The verbal suffix ng can only have its vowel filled in in one way, ing. But this tells us nothing about the vowels missing from the verb root: deleting, dilating, diluting, adulating, …?

Global, cumulative error

8. It is meaningless to compare Greek and Hebrew in point of vowels and direction.

REASON I. Hebrew direction is derivative of older systems. So, you should compare Greek with Proto-Sinaitic, or the Egyptian of Amenemhat III. Comparing Greek and Hebrew is as meaningful as comparing English/Yimas with Egyptian.

REASON II. There is no reason to believe that there is any significance to Greek direction. Where there is little or no pressure to preserve or adopt a given direction and/or the system is radically redesigned, there may be experimentation with alternative directions. Such experimentation may happen in the absence of vowels (e.g., Sabean).

REASON III. Presence/absence of vowels correlates with the grammatical properties of the linguistic families to which Greek and Hebrew belong.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part I.

There are few things more exhilarating than seeing an argument that you disagree with put well. It’s been more than ten years since I first wrote about what atheists have that makes them atheist and what theists lack that gives them a gap for faith to fill (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism). Since then, atheism has become a hot topic, though one inclined at times to give off more heat than light.

Enter Jonathan Sacks, who weighed his Cambridge grounding in formal philosophy and found it wanting, who rose to become chief rabbi, and who now frequently runs the fevered gauntlet of the BBC’s Thought for the Day (in which a cleric must dowse a burning secular issue in the cooling balm of ancient creed).

With such qualifications, I fully expected him to emerge, like the biblical Daniel, unscalded and unscathed from the atheist inferno. I wasn’t awaiting conversion, but I did expect The Great Partnership, the result of his lifelong journey between philosophy and faith, to challenge ideas and arguments that satisfied me in my twenties.

Intending to write a review, I opened the book, sharp of mind and of pencil, filling the margins in my wake. Pretty soon, though, the marginalia ceased and the chief feeling I have on closing its covers is one of disappointment. The argument is largely concerned with reconciling science and religion. But Titanic’s problem wasn’t the tip of the iceberg but what lay beneath—which is why An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, from the start, plunged down to the worldviews that underpin science and religion, where Sacks, oblivious, skims along the surface.

The Great Partnership deserves Titanic’s fate. When he reviews arguments that others have made before him, Sacks is competent. But when his case demands originality of thought, whether to frame questions or offer answers, the result is not searing, but soggy. Not fireproof, but waterlogged. Platitudinous and complacent.

I won’t show this at length. I don’t think the book merits it. What I offer instead is a proxy-review, like those offered to Shmuley Boteach and Fred Reed. I’ll take just one part of the book and show that the high number of basic, easily avoidable errors disqualifies its author from the ranks of serious commentators.

Writing systems are central to how Sacks makes his case. Not only are they prominent in the book, but the difference between Hebrew and Greek was Sacks’ icebreaker on the BBC’s Start the Week. Doubtless, he could have opened otherwise (the book is, after all, mostly meandering and autobiographical, impressionistic and anecdotal). Yet, if aleph-beth versus alphabet is how he chooses to make his big splash, to prove he’s an intellectual supertanker, on national radio, on a Monday morning, then clearly this is not incidental to his thought. This proud prow of his case is thus a fair point for testing how seaworthy that thinking is.

But I must emphasize: this is not a review of the rabbi’s linguistics. Nor am I interested in what led him to make to errors so numerous, basic and avoidable (complacency? hubris? incompetence?). My point is that is if this is the intellectual prowess of this much praised salvo of newfangled anti-atheism—from an academically trained philosopher, a community leader, a veteran of public communication, a stalwart of interfaith dialogue—then it is a very sorry state of affairs. Little could do more to sink the idea that the religious voice will guide us through turbulent seas, or that it constitutes an intellectually defensible position, than this snapshot of (complacent? hubristic? incompetent?) analysis from The Great Partnership.

Big splash or damp squib?

Hebrew runs from right to left and is written without vowels. Greek runs from left to right and is written with vowels. This, Sacks claims, cannot possibly be coincidence. And, in the difference, he perceives deep cultural significance. To reconstitute the meaning of a vowelless text, you have to keep the big picture of the text in mind. Such synthesis is a very “right-brain” activity. To read a voweled script, you concentrate on the each individual sign. Such analytic assemblage is a very “left-brain” activity. Thus, the concerns of Jewish culture are about big picture issues of meaning—wholes and holiness—whereas Greek culture is about taking things apart and seeing how they function. More or less: Greeks are from Mars, Jews are from Venus, and you can see it in how they write.

Just this sliver of thought triggers three clarions of alarm bells: one for culture, another for neurology, and the last for the form and function of writing systems. Of course, the rabbi recognizes—or so he says—that his characterization of the two cultures, and of neurology, is a simplification. I’m not sure this is entirely fair to simplifications. It’s a slippery slope from simplification to oversimplification (or, perhaps more aptly, from dumbing down, down to dumb). Whenever the rabbi talks of left-brain cultures, or left brains, or brains, it feels to me we’re sailing in perilous propinquity to land of “Relativity says all things are relative”.

But many people founder on the logic of neuroscience, and thumbnails of cultures, so diffuse and sprawling, are easily misread, like reefs through water. Alphabets, by contrast, offer solid ground, concrete and familiar. The internet abounds with information for the curious (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts). So, if you’re making claims about alphabets, directions, and voweliness, it’s easy to check your facts, encounter alternatives, and develop and test rival hypotheses.

How far and how successfully Sacks has done this speaks to the intellectual integrity of The Great Partnership, and possibly to that of the new anti-atheist enterprise (of which, to judge by the press, Sacks is something of a flagship). After all, if he can’t figure out how to collect facts and check hunches for such straightforward, well documented, hands-on things as ABC’s, what chance does he have of navigating his way, or his followers, through more abstract arguments, such as the relationship of science and religion, the nature of goodness, and the meaning of life?

Part II
Part III

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part II.

Part I
Part II

Sacks’ facts I: No vowels?

Let’s start with something utterly basic, that no cleric who uses Hebrew professionally should err on. Is it true that Hebrew writes without vowels?

If so, the words gamal (camel), gmalo (his camel), gmala (her camel), and gmali (my camel)—not to mention gomel (benefactor), gimel (name of a letter), gamul (weaned) and their variants—would be written identically. By the time you’re halfway through Hebrew 101, you know they’re not. True, some vowels are not represented (gamal is just GML). True, the letter that distinguishes, e.g., gmali (GMLY) from gamal (GML) is read elsewhere as a consonant—but if i is a vowel in paid, then y is a vowel in pays, and, likewise, Y is a vowel in GMLY = gmali. But conceding these two points does not alter the core fact: these words are not written identically and this means that Hebrew does represent vowels.

Anyone familiar with the language can guess how Sacks has gone wrong here. Hebrew textbooks, as well as some religious texts and poetry, have orthographic measles: dots above, dots below, dots within, where newspapers, religious scrolls, and airport novels are sleek and minimalist. These dots indicate, amongst other things, vowels. The superficial conclusion: no dots, no vowels. But “some” is not “all”. Sacks has committed an elementary error of logic, and compounded it but failing to think through simplicitudes like “my camel”.

Sacks’ facts II: How we read

Sacks’ assumption that the brain works differently when reading Hebrew versus English script is also somewhat suspect.

As an English speaker, you can read this sentence simply and quickly. Not so for “Contains methylisothiazolinone, lauroamphoacetate, and isobutylparaben”, unless you’re an aficionado of soap bottles. Novel words slow you down precisely because you read them letter by letter. When you read at speed, you recognize whole words in fell swoops.

So, the fact that we write different amounts of pronounceable stuff in Hebrew and English doesn’t mean that, when reading English, we sit there putting the pieces together sound by sound, whereas Hebrew readers soar aloft surveying the big picture.

To make commit this oversight, Sacks had not only to ignore the very obvious facts just pointed out (maybe soap bottles, like wikipedia and omniglot, are off the rabbi’s reading list). He had to ignore a mass of research in neurology, an area about which he makes some to-do.

If Hebrew and English readers really used different hemispheres when reading, the difference would be seen in brain scans. Strange then that Reading in the Brain and like works fail to mention this; or that such differences as there are not hemispheric and look grammatical, not vowel- or direction-based. There is even a study that finds similar brain activation in blind (braille) readers and sighted readers (in the, evidently ill-named, visual word form area). It concludes that brains are task machines, not sensory machines. So, if reading Hebrew and English involved such different tasks as Sacks claims, this should be amply evident.

That Sacks contrived to wash his hands of such an elementary fact check is shocking. One is hard pressed to interpret it as anything other than a cavalier unconcern for evidence and stark disregard for truth, or a simple failure to realise that ideas, like actions, have consequences, for which one is answerable. Is this the great partnership The Great Partnership envisages?

Sacks’ facts III: Vowels vs slwV?

Even if Sacks didn’t run the obvious checks on whether Hebrew is really vowelless, whether realtime reading goes letter by letter, or whether brain scans show activation in opposite hemispheres for aleph-beths versus alphabets, you might expect he would at least have fact checked his banner headline: “no vowels = right to left”.

And you’d be wrong. From right to left and left to right, from western antiquity and eastern modernity, and from languages the rabbi has never heard of to examples that sulk, overlooked and accusatory, beneath his very nose, counterexamples abound to Sacks’ great insight.

The Book of Esther opens with a king who ruled from India to Kush. In the Kingdom of Kush lay the city of Moroe. Its alphabet, Meroitic, was used for some seven centuries, to write both Meroitic and Nubian. Contrary to Sacks’ pronouncement, the script had vowels and ran right to left.

Or consider the official writing system of the Maldives, Thaana. A comparatively recent invention, descended from a secret code of traders, it too runs right to left but represents vowels.

And there are counterexamples far closer to home than Meroe and the Maldives.

Yiddish is a language that no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. It is Middle High German in kosher aspic. Written in the Hebrew alphabet, it runs, like Hebrew, from right to left. Yet, like German, it represents vowels. Just as the Greeks adopting the Phoenician script coopted for vowels the letters needed only for Phoenician, so Yiddish resurrects א as a, ע as e, י as i (and y, like Hebrew, and English), and so on. The result is a language written with vowels, from right to left.

Ladino, “Judeo-Spanish”, too, is a language no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. Its writers innovated the same principles as for Yiddish, with Hebrew consonants standing for Spanish vowels. Yet that script too runs left to right.

Equally, voweled scripts have been taken on by languages with little, if any need, to write vowels. In several Sepik languages of Papua New Guinea, vowels are largely predictable. In Yimas, Iatmul, and Kalam, if you know the consonants, most often, you know the vowels. In fact, the world expert on Yimas, Bill Foley, told me years ago that Yimas speakers are frequently inconsistent in whether they represent vowels and if so, where. The peoples of Papua New Guinea lack Greek-like science, so, by Sacks’ criterion, they do not have a right-brained culture. Surely, then, Sacks would expect these speakers to have flipped the roman alphabet, just as Greeks did to Phoenician.

Examples from Papua are perhaps arcane. But it takes little online roaming (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts) to arrive at Meroe and the Maldives. And for a European rabbi to overlook Yiddish and Ladino is inexcusable. If his core claim is disproven by examples ancient and modern, eastern and western, far-flung and familiar, one suspects that he simply didn’t bother to check any facts, or couldn’t imagine that there were any facts worth checking. And Sacks did behold his generalization and, lo, it was good. And he rested. End of story.

The next step

Except that a fact check is never the end of the story. Next comes “what else?”, the search for alternative explanations:

Part III

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part III.

Part I
Part II
Part III

The next step

Except that a fact check is never the end of the story. Next comes “what else?”, the search for alternative explanations:

  • What else could account for why a script runs right to left, not left to right?
  • What else could account for whether a script ignores some vowels?
Here, too, the holeyness of this rabbinic scholarship is apparent.

Alternatives I: Direction from generation to generation

The factors affecting direction are extremely obvious. Yiddish and Ladino kept the direction of Hebrew, the alphabet they adopted. Meroitic kept the direction of the Egyptian writing systems from which it developed. And Thaana, of the muslim Maldives, runs right to left under the influence Arabic. Similarly, languages, like Yimas and Iatmul, that adopt the roman script, preserve its left-to-right direction. The same is true of vertical writing. Chinese passed on its vertical direction to Japanese, Korean, and, most strikingly, to the alphabet of Sogdian, an Iranian language—overriding the direction of its Semitic parent script, Syriac. Sogdian, in turn, passed its verticality on to Manchurian, Mongolian, and Old Uyghur.

Conclusion: writing is conservative. Pretty humdrum, huh?

Apply this thinking to the Sacks’ core cases, Hebrew and Greek.

Hebrew writing grew up in a wholesome, stable household, with a well established family of conventions around it. Preserving the ways of its forefathers, it ran right to left, because, Proto-Sinaitic, the Adam of all alphabets, ran right to left, too. (Sabean swung both ways, but there’s one in every family.) Proto-Sinaitic, which emerged in Middle Egypt, plausibly took its direction from a contemporary Egyptian system. The best known of these, hieroglyphs, had variable direction, both on monuments and in manuscripts. But more user-friendly hieratic robustly ran from right-to-left at the time. This direction was established under Amenemhat III. A learned rabbi might know whether Amenemhat’s culture was left-brained or right. But the conclusion would as irrelevant to Hebrew culture as the directions of English and Chinese are to cultures of the Yimas and the Mongols. In other words, Hebrew’s direction is purely incidental.

Unlike Hebrew, Greek grew up without proper oversight. The Phoenicians, whose alphabet they adopted, were, comparatively, highly literate, with writing in artistic, religious, and economic spheres all reinforcing a uniform direction. The Greeks were all but cut off from this tradition, and what little connection they had would have been overwhelmed by the need for a radical redesign to make the system suitable for Greek. They reshaped letters, added new ones, altered sounds. Absolved of pressure to write in a predetermined direction, they went left to right and right to left (just as precursors of our script did). They even wrote “as the ploughing ox turns” (boustrophedon), going one direction on one line, returning in the other on the next. If regimentation of a single direction was eventually to emerge, there was a coin toss’ chance it would be the same as Phoenician. So, the Greek direction looks coincidental.

The chief rabbi pontificates that the opposing directions of Greek and Hebrew could not be possibly be coincidence. Not only are there no grounds for this wishful thinking, it’s not even clear that the comparison is coherent. Greeks took writing from the Phoenicians. So, if we compare cultures, shouldn’t it be Greek and Phoenician? Phoenician inherited its direction from Proto-Sinaitic, heir, in turn, to the scribes of Amenemhat III. So shouldn’t we compare Greek culture to Egyptian, or Proto-Sinaitic, whatever that is? It makes as much sense to compare Greek with Hebrew, as it does to compare Egyptian with English.

Alternatives II: Vowellessness

The other what-else Sacks should have asked is: What else could explain vowellessness?

Again, once you do your history homework, it’s obvious where to look for an answer. When the Phoenicians passed their writing to the Greeks, the Greeks added vowels. When the Syriacs passed their writing to the Sogdians, the Sogdians added vowels. Similarly for the transfer from Egypt to Meroe, from Hebrew to Yiddish, from Arabic, via Farsi, to Kurdish. There is a common theme here. The donor languages, written without vowels, are Semitic (or, better, Afroasiatic). The recipient languages are anything but: Germanic, Hellenic, Iranian, Romance, or, in the case of Meroitic, an unknown isolate.

The real generalization, then, is that Semites exports consonants, foreigners innovate vowels. Even without the spotting the significance of Semitic as a whole, Sacks should still have asked the simpler question: What else might explain why Hebrew can be written without vowels, is there is something particular about the language, rather than the culture?

Again, the answer is under his very nose.

Consider sentence of vowelless English (“Nglsh”?): Wh lks btng? Obviously, this is Who likes b—ting? But the last word could be baiting, bating, beating, biting, boating, or booting. Once you see ng, you know the vowel of the suffix is i. But that’s all the help the suffix, ng, offers. It doesn’t tell you what’s missing inside the verb, and what’s inside the verb massively changes the meaning.

And that is where Hebrew, and its Semitic relatives, are magnificently different from almost every other language on the planet. In Hebrew, if you know the consonant of the prefix or suffix, you know, to within a small margin of error, the vowels of the entire word. Consider MSPRT, MSXKT, MRKZT. These share the prefix M (like “ing”) and the suffix T (feminine). Together, these make the vowels predictable: mesaperet, mesaxeket, merakezet ((she’s) telling/playing/concentrating).

So, missing a few vowels in Hebrew is nothing like omitting them in English (or Greek, Kurdish, Ladino, Meroitic, Sogdian, or Yiddish). The grammatical structure of the language makes the indication of vowels largely irrelevant. It’s nothing more than English not bothering to indicate how the vowels a and i change from rapid (rapəd) to rapidity (rəpidity).

This grammatical structure is common across the whole of Afroasiatic: not just Hebrew, the whole swathe of languages from Western Sahara, through the Maghreb and Arabia, to easterly Oman, and from Malta down to Ethopia, and beyond. Worryingly for Sacks, this includes languages of traditional enemies of the Israelites, like the Amorites and Assyrians, Canaanites and Egyptians. Does the rabbi wish to suggest that what makes Hebrew so special is shared not just with just any old goyim, but with those in contradistinction to whom the Israelites sought to define themselves, “chosen above all other nations and exalted above all other languages”?

Of Hindenburgs and Titanics

Complacently overlooking the obvious, hubristically disregarding the evidence, and incompetently fabricating answers have long been hallmarks of religious thought. I did not expect them to be so richly abundant (and I’ve barely scratched the surface) in the work of a philosopher-cleric, who aims to connect the new world with the old and to steer path through the hazards of modernity, not just for the faithful, but for modernity itself. How can The Great Partnership fulfil its aim of reconciling science and religion, when it holds such scant respect for evidence and such a low regard for truth? And if this is a flagship, what does it augur of the rest of the industry of intellectually respectable theism?

Optimistically, though, The Great Partnership is a Titanic, not a Hindenburg. Travel by blimp perished with the Hindenburg, but ocean liners lumber on, after Titanic, into the jet age. True to Darwinian principles, religion—the mutating work of man masquerading as immutable word of god—is always adapting. Atheists, nonconformists, and people who are just too busy with the good to bother with a god have always pushed forward the bounds of our humanity. Religion resists, then reticently relents, then suddenly claims the new status quo as being what it meant all along. We need clerics, sympathetic to modernity, who are able to translate moral and intellectual progress into the vocabulary of the religious.

And, though we, the god-free, do not want converting, we would appreciate a coherent theism that eschews gross insult to sense and decency. Partly out of curiosity (it’s nice to know what the neighbours get up to). But mostly because moderate religionists share far more with moderate atheists than they do with fundamentalists and to overplay the difference between atheism and theism is divisive, misguided and wrong.

Those of us who had thought to find this coherent theism in The Great Partnership will be sadly disappointed.